Breda O’Brien: Micheál Martin needs to swot up on home education before he speaks out

The Burke family are far from representative of the diverse homeschool movement, which in some cases can be far more effective than school

School is not necessarily the best place to educate a child. Photograph: Slonov

It is a great pity that the Burke family from Castlebar are being taken as representative of home education. It is a diverse movement and the Burkes are outliers.

When I see the highly intelligent and highly educated Burke family in action, I am reminded of a line from the well-loved animation, The Road to El Dorado. Tulio, voiced by Kevin Kline, says to Miguel, played by Kenneth Branagh; “Miguel, you know that little voice people have that tells them to quit when they’re ahead? You don’t have one!”

The Burkes often take issue about which important questions should be asked and with their intemperate zeal, manage to alienate reasonable people so that it becomes impossible to have civilised conversations about the topics.

Home-education families are well used to what they call the “roll-eyes” question, always asked with great earnestness as if the interrogator were the first to have thought about it: what about socialisation?


Many people comment on how well home-educated young people relate across age groups and generations

They will patiently explain that, shockingly, they have hobbies and interests, and they like hanging out with people, both other home-educated young people and school-goers.

In fact, many people comment on how well home-educated young people relate across age groups and generations. Research carried out by Dr Paula Rothermel, a chartered psychologist, on UK home-educating families, describes the children as “socially adept”.

They also demonstrated levels of educational attainment in advance of their school-educated peers. The results were most striking among children from the lower end of the socio-economic class scale, who significantly outscored those from the upper spectrum. This might indicate that parental involvement and motivation were the key factors, not social class or wealth.

Of course, socialisation has more than one meaning. It does not just mean the ability to navigate social situations and make friends. It also refers to the whole process whereby people acquire the behaviours and beliefs of the culture in which they live.

‘Importance of socialisation’

One suspects that this is what Micheál Martin had in mind when he talked about the “importance of socialisation, particularly in education, the idea that people should be educated in schools”.

The kind of socialisation that takes place in schools is taken to be positive, the norm against which other choices have to be justified.

There are significant problems with bullying and social anxiety in most schools. And yet, of course, no one suggests that schools are a problem that should be banned as a result

This is distinctly odd, given that schools are supposed to be “in loco parentis”; in other words, teachers act with the level of care that a concerned parent would demonstrate.

When parents take this to its logical conclusion and wish to act according to the right affirmed by our Constitution as the primary educators of their children, somehow that is seen as threatening and well-nigh subversive.

There are lots of people for whom school does not work, or who have deeply unhappy experiences at school. There has been a spate of heart-rending articles of late about children who are ghosted by so-called friends in school, or who spend all day with no one speaking to them. There are significant problems with bullying and social anxiety in most schools. And yet, of course, no one suggests that schools are a problem that should be banned as a result.

Home educators are a varied lot. The religiously motivated are one category but are far more prevalent in the United States than in Ireland.

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There is a significant unschooling movement in Ireland, where for various reasons, including left-wing anti-establishment views, people believe education should be child-led, relatively unstructured and mostly unconnected to traditional curriculums.

Many are probably home-educating for pragmatic reasons, such as a specific learning challenge or school simply not suiting a child.

Diversity of careers

The diversity among the home educated is illustrated by what they end up doing for a living. Personally, I know of teachers, both primary and secondary, hairdressers, nurses, artists, animators, academics, musicians, scientists and farmers.

While some simply go to school to do the Leaving Cert, other home-educated young people find alternative routes to third level, including QQI courses or sometimes GCSEs and A Levels. Dr Paul Reade, director and principal of the now sadly closed and much-missed Dublin Tutorial Centre, facilitated many home-educated students over decades as it was the only Irish designated centre for all the UK examination boards for A Levels.

Some simply sat their GCSEs and A Levels there after studying at home, while some took classes as well. In both cases, Dr Reade believes they were the best-educated students he encountered, with the most supportive parents. He acknowledges that there might have been a degree of self-selection among families who chose this route, and also, those who took classes had very small numbers per class.

Nonetheless, he remains full of admiration for the students, noting particularly their eagerness to learn and their willingness to enter into in-depth discussion and listen to other viewpoints.

It’s an approach the Tánaiste might have considered before pronouncing on a topic he knew little about.