Memorandum submitted by Autonomous Education UK

I. Executive Summary

1. Autonomous Education (AE) is intrinsically motivated and learner-led. Where the learner is a child, parents play a supportive role. AE is effective, highly personalised, and respectful of the child.

2. AE is a major ingredient in some UK families' home education, and a smaller ingredient for many more families. "Special needs" children are among those who can benefit from this learning environment.

3. During the Consultation, the author of the Report was told about AE. For no obvious reason, he deemed it "out of scope" of his enquiry and failed to research or understand it. We give references to sources he ought to have consulted.

4. Some of the author's recommendations are incompatible with AE. If they were to be implemented, the effect would be detrimental to children who thrive in an AE environment. These issues are not acknowledged in his Report.

5. We also identify legal, financial and staffing implications related to AE.

II. Who are we?

6. Autonomous Education UK (AEUK) was founded in 2005 and has about 430 members. About 40 of us contributed to this submission.1

7. We are parents intentionally exploring and facilitating child-led, intrinsically-motivated learning.

8. Some of our children have been autonomously educated since birth; others were withdrawn from school for various reasons. Some of us see AE primarily as an effective educational method; some see it more as a way of life. Some of our children are "ordinary", some "gifted", and some have special needs. Our families, skills and histories vary widely.

9. What we have in common is a deep respect for children's rights and autonomy, and a desire to nurture their innate curiosity and ability to learn.

III. What is autonomous education?


10. There is no generally accepted definition of "Autonomous Education". However, it usually means a learning process which is

l learner-led

l intrinsically motivated


l closely personalised to the learner.

11. One description:

"In autonomous education, the decisions about learning are made by the individual learners. They manage and take responsibility for their own learning programmes. They may seek advice from others or look for ideas about what to learn and how to learn it by research and consultation."2

12. Another, this from Gloucestershire County Council's information for parents:

"An autonomous approach to learning allows the children to follow their own interests entirely while parents provide support and encouragement. It assumes that children are rational and creative by nature and know what interests them better than anyone else. In this way, parents do not restrict their children's learning to particular times or places, nor do they prescribe any particular topic, theme or subject matter."3

13. (Adults too can be autonomous learners, but here we focus on children.)

AE and children's rights

14. AE supports children's human rights through

l A fundamental respect for the child's human dignity

l Rejecting violence and coercion in education

l Placing the child central to decision-making about their learning, consistent with their evolving capacities.

The role of the parent or guardian

15. The parents help to create the child's learning environment, as well as being part of it themselves. This is likely to include:

l Purposive conversation

l Research into opportunities and resources

l Practical help, such as taking a child to a group or teacher, or to meet a friend.

16. In discussion of Alan Thomas' book Educating Children at Home,4 Roland Meighan alludes to purposive conversation:

"... what impressed Thomas was the amount [of learning] that occurred largely through social conversation with an adult. He noted a remarkable amount of spontaneous incidental talk. Personally, I prefer to call this 'purposive conversation' to distinguish it from ordinary social exchanges. Thomas reminds us of the research that shows that high achieving 'genius' children have a background of both individualised attention and purposive conversational learning, which are found to be major factors in their accelerated intellectual development."5

17. Parents play a natural role in modelling an approach to learning. The child sees them solving problems and following their own interests in daily life. They may answer a child's question with "I don't know - I wonder how we could find out?"


18. "Autonomous" doesn't necessarily mean "without formal structure". Individual learners may themselves choose to create a timetable, consult teachers, use a workbook or CD, or even join a course.

19. However, any such structure is not imposed by someone other than the learner, and will remain in use only while the learner finds it helpful.

20. There may or may not be physical products such as written work; sometimes the only result is the learner's greater understanding.

21. In school, there is a perceived need to keep children roughly level with each other. This restriction is not necessary in personalised education. It is common for children in home education to appear "behind" their schooled peers in a subject for several years, then rapidly catch up or overtake them.

22. Case study:

M, age 13 and autonomously home educated, is going to France in September 2009. She decided she wanted to be able to talk to people there.

Starting with no knowledge of French, she spent 8 weeks working her way through a CD course with her Grandad (who did O level French 63 years ago!), and talking to native French speakers on the web. By then, she was already more fluent than a friend who's done French for 3 years at school.

She now plans to take GCSE French in 2010 age 14 (along with English language and literature). This was completely self-motivated.6

IV. Some relevant literature, authors and research

From the DCSF

23. In July 2009, the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning published Self-Regulated Learning: A Literature Review.7 This is available from the DCSF website.

24. The summary itself postdates this Review; however, the research cited within it covers many years.

25. This useful document includes much which is relevant to AE. For instance:

"Autonomy is an important dimension of self-regulation. Students who own their goals - because they enjoy the activity or because it fits with their values - devote more time to their tasks, show greater concentration, process information more deeply, and show greater levels of persistence (Ryan and Deci, 2002).8

Other relevant literature

26. We limit ourselves here to naming only a few most relevant authors, and only one book per author.

27. Roland Meighan (formerly Special Professor of Education, University of Nottingham): Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum.9

28. Alan Thomas (Visiting Fellow at University of London Institute of Education), Harriet Pattison (Research Associate there): How Children Learn at Home.10

29. Edward L Deci (Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at Rochester University, USA), often with colleague Richard M Ryan (Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, & Education): many published papers on intrinsic motivation.11, 12

30. Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards.13

31. Jan Fortune-Wood: Doing it Their Way: Home-based Education and Autonomous Learning.14

32. Mary Griffith: The Unschooling Handbook.15

33. John Holt: Learning All the Time.16 His enormously influential work has been translated into fourteen languages.

34. In aiming to nurture intrinsic motivation and autonomy in our children, we are not conducting some far-fetched experiment, but following well-established principles.

The author's use of this literature

35. We know that several of these authors were named by parents during the "research" stage of the Review. Yet the report cites only Thomas.17

36. Not only are the others not cited, the author shows no awareness of their work, or of its implications for his suggested course of action (see below).

V. How common is the autonomous style of home education?

37. Families vary greatly in how deeply they embrace autonomous methods of living and learning. But very few home educators would say that education in their family was completely parent-led. One of the greatest advantages of home-based education is the degree to which it can be personalised to the child, so almost every home-educating family will include at least some element of the child taking the lead.

38. From our experience, it seems to be common to move from a more school-like to a more child-led education over the initial years.

39. Autonomous learning is therefore an important ingredient of home education in the UK, and must certainly be considered in drafting legislation.

VI. Varying paths of autonomously educated children

40. Self-motivation, being adaptable, and pursuing one's own research transfer well to University, employment and self-employment.

41. But the benefits of AE are not limited to the more obviously capable children. Some of us are parents of children with special needs, or of children who simply don't "do well" with formal academic learning.

42. One parent explains:

"I do not [autonomously educate] for philosophical reasons. If I had to stick to a 12 month plan and teach to targets (even if I set them myself), the education I provide would NOT be suited to my child's aptitude and he would be utterly unable to learn.

"I have to accept that although he is not learning as much as I would like, he is learning a whole lot more than he would if I (or anyone else) did try to teach him."18

43. Another parent comments:

"Most children (including my own) will be average, but I believe that at least one of mine would have "failed" in traditional ed (i.e. would have been totally unable to engage with it) but can thrive much better in an auto ed setting."19

44. Case study:

At age four, K's severe dyslexia and dyspraxia were already perceived by his school as problems, and he moved into autonomous home education. At 16, he was accepted into his chosen college to study Art & Design, where he gained the highest marks in his course.20

45. AE doesn't always produce academically impressive outcomes. For some young people with special needs, it would be a huge accomplishment simply to live independently as an adult. But AE is no obstacle to academic success for children who want it and have the ability.21

VII. How do we know they're learning?

46. Parents, being part of their children's learning environment, sense their child's autonomous learning in two main ways:

1. Communication. E.g....

l In purposive conversation, the learner's knowledge may be apparent from the questions they ask.

l The child makes discoveries independently, and may then spontaneously share their findings with a parent or friend.

l The child may request help, implicitly revealing their current skills and interests.

2. Observation. Through living together and being interested in their child, the parent naturally notices what the child is currently capable of.

47. Note that communication need not include the parent "testing" the child. Home educating parents simply know more about their children through daily life than would a classroom teacher dealing with 30 or more.

48. This fits with the basis of autonomous education as intrinsically motivated and self-owned.

49. The parent learns to be patient when results are not immediately obvious. For some parents, this is the hardest part of facilitating autonomous education. It helps to have support from more experienced AE parents, who can feed back "My child did something similar, and what I discovered later she had learned from it was...".

VIII. Problems with the Review

50. It is not clear why the author decided that autonomous education was "Out of Scope" of his Inquiry.22 The practice of AE would certainly be affected by his recommendations.


51. The author has failed to take into account, or even to acknowledge, the incompatibility of his proposed monitoring scheme with the philosophy and practice of AE.

52. His Recommendation 1 includes: "At the time of registration parents/carers/guardians must provide a clear statement of their educational approach, intent and desired/planned outcomes for the child over the following twelve months."

53. Recommendation 7 includes "That parents be required to allow the child through exhibition or other means to demonstrate both attainment and progress in accord with the statement of intent lodged at the time of registration."

54. What's missing:

1. He does not acknowledge that the child may not wish to demonstrate their learning, and that insisting may be an "arbitrary interference with his or her privacy or home", contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.23

2. He does not acknowledge that the parent (while allowing it if the child wished) could have legitimate objections to requiring their child to demonstrate their learning to a third party.24

3. He does not acknowledge that such a forced demonstration could be detrimental to the learning process, through undermining the child's ownership of their learning,25 or that it may be stressful for the child.26

4. He does not acknowledge that the parents' intent may legitimately be as wide as "To support my child in following his/her curiosity and pursuing his/her own aims as they evolve throughout the year".27

5. He does not acknowledge that the need to satisfy an outsider at the year's end could detrimentally influence the child's educational environment throughout the year.28

55. In short, both (a) the requirement of a specific predicted outcome for the year, and (b) the requirement to satisfy an external observer, do not exist in AE. Nor has the author provided any evidence to suggest that these are necessary for learning to take place.

Redefining "efficient" and "suitable"

56. The author recommends redefining the statutory meanings of "efficient" and "suitable". These words already have working definitions supported by case law, which allow for the education to be perfectly suited to each individual child.

57. Although he warns that such redefinitions "should not be overly prescriptive", the issue is framed as one of "curriculum".29 This is to prejudge AE as unsuitable.

58. "Suitable" is already defined as "to [the child's] age, ability and aptitude, and to any special educational needs he may have".30

59. Additional case law definitions31 relate to the needs of an individual child in the context of their whole life. A reasonable person can use them as points of reference when making their personal or professional judgment in a particular case.

60. For Local Authority (LA) staff, it would be easier and require less professional judgement to have a list of tick boxes. But any prescriptive list that attempted to define "suitable" for all children would limit our ability to suit each child.

61. "Efficient" is already defined as "achieving that which it sets out to achieve".32

62. The author wishes to measure this in yearly chunks. But children's learning, especially when given autonomy, is not always that linear or predictable.

63. We are providing our children with education that suits each one of them, individually, as the law requires. We are providing an efficient education, considered as a whole over the course of childhood. This unique customisation will not always fit a predefined list or timescale.

Lack of personnel

64. The author does not fully address the large problem of lack of personnel qualified to perform his proposed visits, merely suggesting "[t]he commissioning of services through the Children's Trust" and "training".33

65. AE both is and presents as significantly different from typical school education. It is unrealistic to expect someone who has neither done it nor studied it to be able to assess it well. (Unfortunately, many LAs do place that expectation on their staff, and this is one of the reasons for home educating parents' wariness of LA visitors.)

66. We question whether, under the author's proposals, child protection social workers would be trained to assess AE, or people with experience in AE would be trained in child protection, or two people would visit each family.

Legal implications

67. Summerhill School follows AE methods, and its right to do so was upheld in 2000 at the High Court.34

68. In contrast, the author proposes that parents must declare "desired/planned outcomes for the child" a year in advance.35 Worryingly, DCSF says that providing "inadequate information" would be a criminal offence.36 What "inadequate" means there is currently unclear.

69. Such legislation could easily deter a newly home educating family from exploring an autonomous or semi-autonomous approach, especially if implemented by personnel who are only familiar with a curriculum-driven "school at home" model. Currently, LAs often wrongly advise parents that elective home education (EHE) must resemble school.37

70. The author does not recognise the phenomenon of "deschooling", a recognised post-school transition state which may last some months.38 He has allowed no time for that to occur before requiring the family to state their aims for the year. This omission too would tend to sabotage any trial of AE.

71. It would be a tragic irony if, in his desire to uphold children's rights, the author were to legislate out of existence a form of education which is deeply respectful of children's own aims and autonomy.

Neglected costs

72. Contrary to Government guidance,39 there has still been no published Impact Assessment.

73. Baroness Morgan says "We do not expect [the proposals] to place any significant additional burdens on local authorities as most already monitor home education".40

74. But most LAs don't currently visit all electively home educating families, or even know of them all, let alone have people trained to assess AE.

75. Moreover, home educating families, perhaps especially those favouring AE, often do not look "typical", thus are at high risk of having mistaken assumptions made about them. Concerns arise about abuse/neglect, which upon investigation prove unfounded. Any rise in these "false positives" would of course add to the workload of departments other than EHE.

The author's few words on autonomous education

76. The author selectively quotes "merely to allow a child to follow its own devices ... such a course would not be education but, at best, child-minding."41

77. In fact, the Judge in that case concluded that the children were not "merely" being left to follow their own devices, but were receiving an efficient education, recognisable as "the autonomous method".42

78. The author's call for further research into AE sits oddly with his disregard of the available material.

IX. Recommendations

79. Some Local Authorities do a far better job than others, both in general and in relation to AE. We would like to see good practice documented and copied.

80. The need for LA staff to recognise AE as valid extends to more than EHE personnel. Advice from health visitors, a child's previous teachers, or other staff may all either support or undermine the family's success.

September 2009




1. Co-ordinator: Raquel Toney. Lead writer/editor: Jennifer Moore. The others contributed via the Internet to either writing/debating, research or proofreading. We worked to achieve consensus, so this document is fairly well representative of those 40 people's views.

We would welcome the opportunity to expand on our submission by giving oral evidence to the Committee.

2. First definition of AE: Roland Meighan, Comparing Learning Systems: the good, the bad, the ugly and the counter-productive (Educational Heretics Press, 2005), p15

3. Gloucestershire CC's definition of AE:

4. Alan Thomas, Educating Children at Home, Cassell Education Series, 1998.

5. Discussion of purposive conversation:

6. Case study, M: From M's parent on AEUK discussion list.

7. Self-Regulated Learning: A Literature Review: Duckworth et al. DCSF website,

8. Autonomy as dimension of self-regulation: Ibid, page vi.

9. Roland Meighan, Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum, Educational Heretics Press, 2001.

10. Thomas & Pattison, How Children Learn at Home, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Explores how children learn for themselves outside a school environment. See also numerous other works by Alan Thomas.

11. Professor Edward L Deci, list of publications (going back to 1971):

12. Professor Richard Ryan, list of publications:

13. Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise and other bribes, Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Paperback with new Afterword, Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Explanation for a lay audience of what's known about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The "References" section of this book cites lots of relevant research.

14. Jan Fortune-Wood, Doing it Their Way, Educational Heretics Press, 2000. We could also have cited Without Boundaries: Consent Based, Non Coercive Parenting and Autonomous Education, Educational Heretics Press, 2000.

15. Mary Griffith, The Unschooling Handbook, either Crown Publishing or Three Rivers Press, both 1998. Practical daily life in child-led or partially-child-led education; stories from real families.

16. John Holt, Learning All the Time, Perseus Books, New Edition edition, 1990. AE was a major focus of his work, and several of his other books are relevant, including How Children Fail (originally Pitman, 1964; reprinted Penguin Books, 1990) and How Children Learn (Pitman Publising Corporation, 1967; Revised edition Pelican Books, 1984).

17. Oddly, the Literature Review does not even cite Thomas.

18. "I do not AE for philosophical reasons": Parent on AEUK discussion list.

19. "Unable to engage with traditional ed": Parent on AEUK discussion list.

20. Case study, K: From K's parent on AEUK discussion list.

21. "No obstacle to academic success": For example, C was autonomously home educated up to 14, then did GCSEs and A levels at college. Took 2.1 biology degree at age 20; continued to bio-medical phD, due to finish in 2010. Source: C's parent, on AEUK discussion list.

22. "Out of Scope": Graham Badman, Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education in England (hereafter "Badman Report"), title for section 10.

23. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 16, Section 1: "No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation."

24. "Legitimate objections":

a) European Convention on Human rights, Protocol 1 Article 2. "In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions."

b) "Philosophical convictions" is further defined in European law in the case of Campbell and Cosans.

However, the best justification is surely the desire and duty to protect the best interests of the child.

25. "Ownership of learning": The DCSF's Self-Regulated Learning, which we cite above, contains relevant material. See also Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards for a general introduction to intrinsic motivation.

26. "Stressful for the child": For example, the visit described here took place in December 2008 under X County Council.

"I explained [to the inspector] how my [five year old] daughter was very traumatised by just over 2 terms at school particularly about reading, had been totally turned off from a keen, articulate, engaging girl to someone who just rocked at the back of the class ... I was still in the assessment phase with her and that any attempt at anything schoolish or confrontational would set her back many weeks. ...

[The inspector] demanded that my daughter read to her from a book she produced. My daughter refused and picked out her own book and turned to a page on boa-constrictors and explained how it squeezed animals to death before eating them. The inspector then left me with a pile of photo-copied key word flash cards to use ...

My daughter had nightmares for two weeks afterwards and was terrified of knocks at the door for much longer thinking they were more teachers coming for her."

- Extracts from longer account by X, which is available in full from AEUK on request.

27. "The parents' intent may legitimately be": Law as for point above on "Legitimate objections".

28. "Detrimentally influence": By this we mean, for instance, that a focus on specific imminent goals can make it more difficult for the parents to trust their child's learning process. A degree of trust in the child's choices is an essential ingredient of AE.

The stress of the visits for both parent and child is of course also relevant here; see earlier footnote on "stressful for the child".

29. "Issue / curriculum": Badman Report, Recommendation 2.

30. "Suitable": Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act.

31. "Additional case law definitions":

(a) In the case of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzikei, Hadass School Trust (1985), Mr Justice Woolf held that: "... education is 'suitable' if it primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so."

(b) In the case of Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson (QB (DC) 729/81), it was defined as education which was such as: "1. to prepare the children for life in modern civilised society, and 2. to enable them to achieve their full potential".

32. "Efficient": Judgement in the case of Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson (QB (DC) 729/81). "Is this system of education "efficient"? A system in my judgment (and I so direct the Court) is "efficient" if it achieves that which it sets out to achieve."

33. Badman Report, paragraph 5.6.

34. Independent Schools Tribunal IST/59. Additional context is available from

35. Badman report, part of Recommendation 1. "At the time of registration parents/carers/guardians must provide a clear statement of their educational approach, intent and desired/planned outcomes for the child over the following twelve months."

36. "Home Education - registration and monitoring proposals" consultation document, launch date Thursday 11 June 2009, Section 2.3. "It will be a criminal offence to fail to register or to provide inadequate or false information".

37. "Wrongly advise parents that EHE must resemble school": two examples.

a) Nottingham City Council's EHE department, 2007, leaflet entitled "Elective Home Education Guidance for Parents and Carers". Bullet points include "Who will be doing the teaching?" "The advisor will want to see examples of work that has been completed." "It might be useful if you produce a timetable that you and your child(ren) commit to each day." AE is not mentioned.

b) North Lincolnshire's web site currently offers a document entitled "Educated at home: Guidance notes for parents". This does not mention AE on any of its 20 pages. They say that "the best evidence" to "satisfy the Local Authority" is "a combination of: * Subject planning with marking and target setting information. * Completed work, past and present, with dates and comments. * Test and Assessment work and records of progress. * Discussion with parent/tutor and child." They also assume that the education can be described as "the programme of work". Downloaded 21 September 2009 from

38. "Deschooling": "It can take time - weeks, months, sometimes even years - for children to rediscover their natural curiosity, to adapt to the concept that what and how they learn is up to them, to believe enough in their own abilities to let themselves care deeply about what they do." - Mary Griffith, The Unschooling Handbook (Three Rivers Press, 1998), p12.

A "rule of thumb" sometimes given to newly AE families is to allow a month of de-schooling for every year of school.

In R v Gwent County Council ex parte Perry (1985; ref 129S.J. 737:CA), Lord Woolf suggests the Education Authority (as it then was) "[allow] the parents a sufficient time to set in motion their arrangements for home education". This has meant that parents could wait to be guided by the child's reawakening curiosity.

39. Better Regulation Executive guidance:

"Criterion 3.3 of the Code of Practice states that estimates of the costs and benefits of the policy options under consideration should normally form an integral part of consultation exercises, setting out the Government's current understanding of the costs and benefits. This should normally be done through a "consultation-stage Impact Assessment" attached to the consultation document.

A "consultation-stage Impact Assessment" should contain the evidence as currently available to Government and should be used to illicit (sic) further evidence from consultees on the potential costs and benefits of policy options."


40. Hansard, 29 Jun 2009, Column WA6.

41. Badman Report, paragraph 10.1, quoting from Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson (QB (DC) 729/81).

42. Conclusion in Harrison case:

"The appellants' children are, and have been, allowed to follow their own interests and to investigate subjects largely of their own choice without restriction. They have not, however - so we think - been simply left to their own devices. The overwhelming impression left by the evidence is that the children are always engaged in concentrated and creative activity or study, and that idleness or ineffectiveness would simply not be tolerated.

On the evidence, we conclude that, despite the lack of formulation or structure, these children have received and are receiving education capable of informed description as the autonomous method, which can properly be described as systematic and which is certainly "full-time"."

In contrast, the very small quote used in the Report could easily give the impression that the Judgement had been a condemnation of AE.