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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Should we really call this home schooling? Reflections from the research field

Amber Fensham-Smith, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies  at The Open University

Within this current context, the term ‘home schooling’ is often deployed in a blanket way to describe what is likely to be a plethora of activities and methods of teaching and learning largely ‘at home’. It is marked by varying degrees of imposed social distancing. The problem with calling this temporary form of provision home schooling or ‘home education’ is that it obscures a small but growing body of research that shows that home education happens within the social context of face-to-face communities (de Carvalho & Skipper, 2019; Safran, 2010).

Home education, or home schooling as it is more commonly known internationally, encompasses a broad spectrum of educational philosophies, methods, curricula, styles and approaches. It includes everything from unschooling – a philosophy of repositioning life, family relationships and learning to respond to children’s interests and needs without curriculum – right through to structured formal home-tutoring and every approach in between. While the practice of UK families is highly individualised, after a period of unsuccessfully trying to emulate school at home, some parents cultivate the cultural and social capital needed to facilitate a more personalised pedagogic approach (Fensham-Smith, 2017).

‘We are moving beyond understanding home education as a form of provision confined to didactic parent–teacher relationships, formal curriculum and the confines of learning at the kitchen table.’

A mixed-methods doctoral research project with 242 home-educating families in the UK (Fensham-Smith, 2017), found that home-educated children’s learning primarily happened within the context of face-to-face local communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). This type and form of provision incorporated participation in family face-to-face workshops, activities groups, museum trips and so on. Socialising with, and being socialised into, learning communities offline was key to how parents positioned the relative success of home education, their identity and sense of belonging. This enabled parents to facilitate a highly personalised and flexible programme of education for their children. This study and others have helped us to move beyond understanding home education as a form of provision that is confined to didactic parent–teacher relationships, formal curriculum and the confines of learning at the kitchen table (Fensham-Smith, 2019).

Building on this work, in March Dr Zoe Flack and I began a Photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997) community group project with 12 home-educated children in Sussex. The project aimed to provide children with the opportunity to showcase their experiences of being home educated. Within the complex decision-making that ultimately led to the postponement of the project, participants voiced concern that documenting their experiences at this time would not justly represent their home education in normal circumstances. For these children, social isolation at home and the absence of regular activities and face-to-face events is not what home education means to them, nor is it the subject matter that they wished to showcase for a previously planned photography exhibition. This further demonstrates why narrow and uncritical applications of the term ‘home schooling’ during a highly uncertain period risks misrepresenting the experiences of communities that collectively colour a more diverse tapestry of what education is and what learning could be.

Home education advocates on social media speculate that this temporary period will serve to permanently democratise a better form of education for all, whereas education leaders invite us to mourn the loss of learning and pupil progress while schools remain closed (a pertinent example can be found here). This debate seems to mirror much of the pre-existing and unhelpful discourse that those researching the topic have tried to move beyond (Conroy, 2010; Fensham-Smith, 2017). Arguably, there is no more pressing time to build connections and share practice within, outside and between home learning and school. Whether we can, or should, refer to learning at home during this pandemic as ‘home schooling’ is secondary to the ways in which we reflect, discuss and debate the very purpose of education and learning. Existing home education research provides just one of many starting points to build a bigger conversation.


de Carvalho, E., & Skipper, Y. (2019). ‘We’re not just sat at home in our pyjamas!’: A thematic analysis of the social lives of home educated adolescents in the UK. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 34, 501–516.

Conroy, J. C. (2010). The state, parenting and the populist energies of anxiety. Educational Theory, 60(3), 325–340.

Fensham-Smith, A. J. (2017). New technologies knowledge, networks and communities in home education. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cardiff University. Retrieved from

Fensham-Smith, A. J. (2019). Becoming a home educator in a networked world: Towards the democratisation of education alternatives. Other Education: The Journal of Education Alternatives, 8(1), 27–57. Retrieved from

Safran, B. L. (2010). Legitimate peripheral participation and home-education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(1), 107–112.

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education and Behaviour, 24(3), 369–387.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.