We have suddenly found ourselves in a situation where almost the entire nation are homeschooling their children due to Coronavirus. I was home-schooled until I was nine – my thoughts about writing something suddenly became rather relevant. While homeschooling is typically associated with the American religious right, the people who choose to home educate their children do so for a number of reasons and are by no means a homogenous group. Furthermore, the landscape in the UK is rather different to the one in the US. We do not have the same Christian right wing (teaching evolution or sex education do not have the same divisive effect in the UK as they do in the US) and we also have a high number of state-maintained faith schools. Homeschooling (pre-Coronavirus) however seems to be on the increase, with around 58, 000 children registered as homeschooled in 2018, (Foster & Danechi, 2019) up from 34, 000 in 2015 (Issimdar, 2018), a shift which is largely attributed to dissatisfaction with the school system. People may choose to home educate their children if they have tried and failed to obtain sufficient support in an overstretched system for special educational needs, a disability or mental and/or physical health issues, or issues around bullying have failed to be resolved. (Williams, 2018) Some children simply struggle to settle in. Other people feel (and I would concur) that schools are too much of a system, a sausage factory with an overemphasis on testing and exams with too many cuts to the arts. Alongside that, there is also a very middle class version of homeschooling, often chosen because the child or young person wants to pursue certain subjects or interests which are not catered for within a mainstream school, is bored as a result of not being stretched enough, or is ahead of their peers because of input received at home.
It seems to me that it is rarely a case of socially maladjusted, lonely children who are isolated and stuck at home. I read about Claire Mumford’s homeschooling endeavours: there seems to be lots of time outdoors, lots of experiential active learning, involvement in the local community and activities with other groups, including other families who homeschool. (Williams, 2018) (The toll of course of home education on a family’s financial resources and indeed women’s careers is not be underestimated.)
Williams (ibid) suggests that for some, home education is about a romanticised vision of the past or trying to avoid what is perceived as a changing, dangerous society. Both of those things sound familiar to me. (More of that later.) However, I remember when I trained as a teacher, an academic told us that school was the safest, warmest place in some children’s lives and their teachers were the most stable adults they knew. A sobering thought indeed. The role of schools in providing for children has very much come to the fore with the on-going battle between Marcus Rashford and the Tory government over free school meals.
There have been calls to tighten regulations around home education: media reports suggest there are 500 unregistered schools in the UK; these encompass a range of faith schools and schools which exist to provide education for children who have been withdrawn from the maintained sector (Weale, 2019). Disturbingly, some of the latter charge high fees but are not fit for purpose. Many of the unregistered schools were found to have unqualified teachers who were poorly equipped to teach the vulnerable children they were responsible for, along with health and safety issues and poor facilities. The inspector concerned was clear that the problem is unregistered schools, not a faith setting.
The article described one school where children did little but recite passages of an unspecified scripture and concerns have been raised over schools with an overly narrow, Islam-centric curriculum. I am reminded of an article about a young man who left his Haredi or Orthodox Jewish community, having attended unregistered Haredi Jewish schools where study consists primarily of scriptural study and physical punishment was the norm. Many of these schools have evaded local authority attempts to intervene or close them. Male students may complete a few GCSEs in subjects like maths, which offer little to contradict their beliefs. Girls are more likely to have more of a secular education and gain more GCSEs as they are expected to work. Men however spend their whole lives studying scripture while their wives work and maintain the home. Families are often reliant on benefits and women have an average of seven children, as abstinence is the only approved method of contraception.
The emphasis on scriptural study, the conflict between having a family and maintaining proscribed religious practice, the difficulty in doing what is ‘right’ by scripture rather than what is practical and actively trying to keep people away from the outside world all ring bells for me. And so we get to the point where I start talking about the religious community I grew up. I’ve written a lot about my own experiences but this about goes back further to the 1970s. With great interest I read a 2001 piece by Gabriel Deadwyler about his experiences of being educated at a gurukula or ashram-style boarding school. He outlines some keys points of the educational philosophy that these schools were founded on:
- Obedience to authority
- Children were to be separated from parents and mainstream society
- A simple or austere lifestyle should be followed
- Children should rise at 4am to attend morning worship at the temple
He writes, ‘From quotations I have read from Prabhupada (AC Bhaktivedanta Swami), (he was)… interested overwhelmingly in a religious education, he specifically instructed that the goal of gurukula was to create preachers and devotees of high character and sense control, and that advanced academics and higher education like university were neither desired nor required.’ (2001)
Gurukulas were opened in various locations across the United States and one in Vrindavana, a town in Northern India which is an important place of pilgrimage. These schools were poorly financed and staffed by untrained, unqualified teachers, many of whom were sent to teach there as no other role had been found for them. Sadly, many of the gurukulas were horribly abusive; physical, psychological and sexual abuse all took place along with children being denied medical treatment.
The gurukula in Dallas, Texas was forced to close by state authorities in 1975 and the last school closed in 1986. Parents were horrified to discover how their children had been treated and by the efforts to cover up the abuse; as a result the community significantly changed. Whereas adults had been occupied in full-time temple service while their children attended year-round gurukulas, the majority of families then moved into their own homes, creating a predominantly congregational community. Having spent years in the temple, people took jobs in the outside world and many sent their children to state schools. Others attended day schools which had been set up in the wake of the abuse scandal. Some people abandoned their faith entirely, either temporarily or permanently.
A child protection office was also established and full details of the abuse were published in the Iskcon Communications Journal. (I have referenced E Burke Rochford’s article in the reference section below but please be aware it contains distressing content.) A settlement of $9 million US dollars was reached in order to avoid a lawsuit. ”We need to get to the bottom of it,” said Anuttama Dasa, the North American director of communications for Iskcon, ”and to the best of our ability do whatever we can to try to repair the damage to the kids and show them we do care as a religious society.” (Goodstein, 1998).
Gabriel Deadwyler, who attended a gurukula until the age of fifteen wrote of his struggles to find his way in the world after completing his education which consisted almost entirely of the study of Sanskrit and Bengali scriptures. He talks of being completely unprepared to navigate the outside world and two clashing cultures, which were essentially poles apart. Pradyumna Kafle goes further, asking why he wasn’t raised with a broader view: ‘I feel that overprotecting children from exposure to the real world because of a phobia that they may succumb to illusion can stifle a child’s emotional growth.’ (Kafle, 2001:)
He discusses the unsuccessful attempts to occupy young people of fifteen or sixteen in full time temple service, essentially expecting them to be adults, happy to carry out full-time unpaid work as a result of their religious convictions. (After a brief stint as a temple typist, he went on to join the US Naval Forces, taking advantage of the training and educational opportunities offered, working his way up and completing a degree.)
I was born in 1987. There were lots of children born around that time in Ireland and the community hoped to build a day school where we would be immersed in religion but also learn mainstream curriculum subjects. Much of what the early gurukulas had been based on had been set aside, deemed inappropriate for young children and more suited to monks resident in the temple. As I think about it, it seems to present a conflict of how you navigate a leader’s teachings which you accept as gospel but on the other hand, which have gone horribly wrong when attempts were made to follow them. I rang my dad to talk about this. He talked about how AC Bhaktivedanta Swami was quite radical in many ways, for example, allowing women to be part of what had previously been a male monastic tradition. He had also been known to try things and abandon ideas that weren’t working, emphasising that different things worked in different times, places and circumstances. My dad also pointed out that anyone who had abused those children had 100% missed the point of any of the religious teachings. ‘Don’t forget,’ he commented, ‘You get nutters, perverts and child abusers in every religious organisation. We are not the only one.’
Many of my peers had fairly isolated homeschooling experiences, our collective attempts lasting but a short time, with some of them going in and out of mainstream school. It does however seem that the older they were when they started school, the more they struggled to fit in. Some were bullied, possibly as they lived in very rural areas where people were extremely insular. Others said they didn’t object to homeschooling per se but they disagreed with raising children in such isolated circumstances.
What exactly was so awful about school that they had to keep us away from? Was it about sex, alcohol, drugs, television, films, and pop music? I think all parents worry about these things. I think all parents also worry about who their kids will meet at school and that their peers will be a bad influence. I think our parents feared that we might encounter intolerance, that we might accidentally eat non-vegetarian food or that the education system would turn us into atheists. (We all remain stubbornly vegetarian, deep frying paneer with no idea what these nut roasts are.) While I don’t know a huge amount about other countries, schools in the UK or Ireland don’t preach atheism. Yes, evolution was on the science curriculum but it was hardly the focus. Our science teacher said he was aware that many did not agree with it but we needed to know what to write if it came up in the exam. It all felt a bit light weight compared to the rants my mother would sometimes go on about evolution. It’s probably also worth thinking about the fact that children of all religions attend state schools and arguably come up against things they don’t agree with. There is a part of me that thinks you can still make a religion a huge part of your life if you want to, even if you attend a non-faith school. My mother got me up out of bed every morning before school to chant two rounds of japa, learn some Bhagavad-Gita verses, offer arati and sing the Nrsimha Pranams, which are said to protect you.
I feel my generation occupied an odd halfway house. It was felt it was best for us to study mainstream subjects but there was a grey area about what we would actually do with our lives. Many of our parents worked enough to get by but didn’t really worry about careers or pensions, preferring to focus on service at the temple and sadhana or religious practice. I was curious that some of my peers didn’t really seem to be doing anything. They didn’t have career aspirations or seem to be especially religious either. (I suppose I would have liked parents with professional careers who had professional friends and therefore I could have had lots of positive role models and useful input.)
I’ve expressed disappointment before at our haphazard, short-lived and at times chaotic attempts at homeschooling. My best friend’s mum was the only one who stuck at it. She taught us in Wicklow and again on the mainland, when we lived over the lake from the island. They left to spend time in India which was when it became rather disjointed as other people tried to continue her efforts. She homeschooled her daughters into their teenage years, no mean feat.
I’ve driven my parents mad by talking about our efforts at homeschooling and what they envisaged in the long term.
‘What did you actually expect me to do, if I hadn’t gone to school and learned to get used to the real world?’
‘Well, you’re very bright, we assumed you’d be fine.’
‘No, I want a proper answer. What did you actually expect me to do?’
‘Well, we just assumed you’d find something to do. We thought you’d go to university.’
‘So you hadn’t really thought about it properly then, had you?’
My father, visibly tired, rubbed his bald head, looked over his glasses and said, ‘Maybe you should have gone into the law. I feel like I’m being interrogated.’
A common concern about homeschooling is that children’s education might suffer. I feel this was quite the opposite in my case. I went to school aged nine and was deeply unimpressed by the other girls’ reading skills but I also felt left out that I wasn’t in a reading group. I understood I shouldn’t say anything. Sometimes I expressed my frustration to my mother who said I should view it as an opportunity to practice tolerance. She quoted verse three from Mahaprabhu’s Siksastakam which we often chanted at the temple – it talked about being humbler than a blade of grass and more tolerant than a tree:
trinad api sunicena
taror iva sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
You can hear it here (jump to 52 minutes) although it is sung rather than chanted.
I went to a grammar school on the Lisburn Road, where I objected to sitting next to the disinterested girls, on whom I was meant to have a positive influence but on the whole I liked school. I could have been stretched further and I wish we’d been taught to write academic essays before going to university but on the whole I’d argue that going to school was one of the best decisions I made. Michael Apple, author of Away With All The Teachers: The Cultural Politics of Home Schooling, commented on schools, ‘Even with the evident shortcomings, schools provide a kind of social glue, a common cultural reference point in our polyglot, increasingly multicultural society’ (2000). That said, I do know people who do fine or are indeed thriving in life and society, but just struggled to fit in at school. I was struck by Jahnavi Harrison’s searingly honest account of her experiences, which you can read here.
I felt very cynical and almost against any kind of alternative schooling. I felt very strongly that it was just cocooning children until they would have to start their exhausting, confusing dance between two worlds. Better just to go to school with the other four year olds and have a chance to blend in, avoiding the painful transition phase. I was however pleasantly surprised when I spent a week at the school attached to Bhaktivedanta Manor. I think it went some way to changing my mind. They followed a mainstream curriculum taught by qualified teachers but were involved in the life of the temple. They had lunch there, took harmonium classes and took part in a festival one afternoon. We visited the neighbouring Krishna Avanti primary school. We ate lunch sitting cross-legged on the floor, which Ofsted aparently loved and I asked for the dal recipe and have included it here. I felt weirdly emotional that day and I felt a tremendous sense of retrospective jealousy. They had a big kirtan for all of the children. A boy of eight or nine played the mridanga with a deft expertise and technique you’d expect to see in a well-practiced adult, despite his arms barely being long enough to reach both ends of the full sized drum
I was supposed to be on responsible adult duty that day but I hid in the ladies’ toilets and cried, thinking of our failed attempts at community schooling when our school should have been like these two. I got a bus home from Edgware and bought a bucket from a hardware store.
The Avanti schools are an intriguing project. Billed as the first Hindu free school in the UK, they have strong affiliations with Bhaktivedanta Manor. Free schools, like charter schools in the US, are funded by the government but operate outside the mainstream school system. There are a range of questionable issues surrounding free schools (including accountability and over-inflated executive salaries) but they do seem like a way of providing for religious communities and including everyone in mainstream society. Free schools are not selective, meaning that they have a varied student population. It’s an interesting idea, being at a school that bears your values, provides a good lunch and allows you to mix with people from other backgrounds, where you can learn about each other. (Avanti is of course far from perfect. Many feel the pressure on students and staff to achieve results is excessive; others feel religion makes up too small a proportion of the life of the school.)
As I reflect on all of this. I think about how I’m supposed to be liberal and open minded but I feel a real resistance to doing anything unusual, anything outside the mainstream. I don’t have children but if I did, I wouldn’t home school them. Writing this article has made me feel tired, thinking about how I was felt I was dragged through a range of unsuccessful social experiments. I try to remember to think about how things have, and continue to move on, and hopefully the mistakes and muddles of the past have been left behind.
Apple, M. W. (2000) Away with all teachers: The cultural politics of home schooling, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 10:1, 61-80, DOI: 10.1080/09620210000200049
Burke Rochford, E. &Heinlein, J. (1998) Child Abuse in the Hare Krishna Movement: 1971-1986. Iskcon Communications Journal. Available at https://content.iskcon.org/icj/6_1/6_1rochford.html
Deadwyler, G. (2001) Fifteen Years Later: A Critique Of Gurukula. Iskcon Communications Journal Vol. 9, No. 1 https://content.iskcon.org/icj/9_1/yudhi.html
Foster, D. & Danechi, S. (2019) Home education in England Briefing Paper No. 5108. House of Commons Library
Goodstein, L. (1998) Hare Krishna Movement Details Past Abuse at Its Boarding Schools. New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/09/us/hare-krishna-movement-details-past-abuse-at-its-boarding-schools.html
Issimdar, M. (2018) Homeschooling in the UK increases 40% over three years. BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-42624220
Kafle, P. (2001) The Destruction and Resurrection of My Hare Krsna Faith. Iskcon Communications Journal Vol. 9, No. 1 https://content.iskcon.org/icj/9_1/pradyumna.html
Pogrund, G. (2017) Meet the British Jews who escaped from the Haredi community. The Times Available at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/meet-the-british-jews-who-escaped-from-the-strict-haredi-community-75b9cvlwp
van Praagh, A. (2014) What’s it like to grow up in a religious sect? Telegraph Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11257637/Religious-sect-whats-it-like-to-grow-up-in-one.html
Weale, S. (2019) Ofsted uncovers 500 suspected illegal schools in England. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/12/ofsted-uncovers-500-suspected-illegal-schools-in-england
Williams, S. (2018) ‘School is very oppressive’: why home-schooling is on the rise. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/nov/03/get-to-be-free-rise-in-home-schooling