Education: Mum, let's do some exams: For most parents, teaching GSCEs at home would be a daunting task, but the numbers are increasing. Emma Cook reports

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It's that time of year again, when parents, teachers and children are anxiously awaiting their GCSE exam results. The experience is that much more tense for parents of children who have taken it upon themselves to be their teachers as well.

'Exams are a very draining period for us,' admits Alice Williams, now teaching her two eldest daughters GCSEs. Ideally, the Williams's would have considered a Catholic single sex school. There wasn't one in the area so their children have stayed at home.

With the help of a private tutor and her husband Hugh, who runs a home-based accountancy firm, she teaches all five children in their house on the edge of Dartmoor. Emily, 15, and Florence, 14, already have six GCSEs, including astronomy, taken three years ago.

Unlike parents who send their children to school, home-educators have the added pressure that if exam results are disappointing then they have only themselves to blame. Last year both Emily and Florence received an E grade for their GCSE history.

'My husband feels he didn't do enough homework on how the examiners wanted the course work presented,' she says.

It is problems like these that can make home education, particularly at such a crucial stage, an intimidating option. Yet, more and more parents are opting for it, convinced the good points outweigh the bad. Jane Lowe, publicity officer for the self-help organisation Education Otherwise, says they have 10,000 members and about 100 new families join every month.

In the past, home education was quite popular for primary-age children, but at GCSE level parents tended to lose confidence and send them back to school. That pattern is changing. Paul Saunders, Surrey co-ordinator for Education Otherwise, has noticed a marked increase in the number of inquiries, particularly in the past six months. 'Three years ago, parents were daunted by the thought of teaching the GCSE syllabus.'

Roland Meighan, Professor of Education at Nottingham University's School of Education, is aware of a similar trend. 'When I first started researching the effectiveness of home education in 1977, the vast majority of parents chose it through desperation. Now it's a motive of principle - it's a choice. They don't want their children to feel bored or low spirited.'

The type of parent choosing home education seems to be as varied as those who decide to send their children to school.

One of the advantages of teaching GCSEs at home is the choice you get of how many subjects to introduce and at what age. 'Why study eight in one year when you can take two each year from a younger age and still get to college by 18?' asks Paul Saunders, who is already planning GCSE subjects for his eldest son Darryl, 12, to study next year.

Darryl was taken out of school because he was bored and felt unmotivated while his younger daughter, Kayleigh, eight, was never sent because Darryl was already being taught at home. Both will be spared the workload that most schoolchildren endure. 'At GCSE age a child is changing emotionally and physically. With the added pressure of at least six exams, you've got a hot cocktail that some kids can't deal with.'

As far as Paul is concerned, the GCSEs are relatively straightforward to teach. 'If you look at the maths curriculum the amount of content isn't that great. You're not contained to 40-minute chunks either. If the child is still willing to learn after an hour you can keep on studying.'

Alice Williams feels equally confident teaching at this level. 'It's no more difficult than teaching pre-GCSE standard,' she says. 'It's certainly easier just putting them through a couple of exams every year.'

Yet Brian Harrison-Jennings, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, believes strongly that children should take the bulk of their GCSEs in one year.

Parents may find it easier to stagger their children's exams, but this approach may be less impressive academically. 'Universities want to see all those GCSEs on one certificate,' he says. 'They want to know that you can cope with a range of subjects at the same time.'

He believes that teaching so many subjects simultaneously would be almost impossible for most parents. 'I don't even know a teacher that could do it.'

But what emerges through Professor Meighan's research is that it is relatively unimportant how academically qualified parents are in a subject area, even at GCSE standard. 'When you're studying for exams, it's down to you not your teacher,' he says. 'Children at home tend to be very independent, self-reliant learners so when they sit their GCSEs it's business as usual.'

In contrast, schoolchildren are, he believes, more likely to regurgitate information rather than think around arguments creatively. 'This is why home-educated pupils get such good marks - they have the confidence to take a different angle. Some of the results at A-level are quite startling.'

In Britain no statistics exist to back up this anecdotal evidence. The number of home-educators is so small that nobody appears to be that critical of, or interested, in the trend - including the Government. Yet in America, home education is a legitimate and respected alternative - with a research institute devoted to the subject. Recent US figures reveal that home-taught children between the ages of 12 to 16 are at least two and sometimes up to 10 years ahead of their school-educated counterparts in terms of intellectual achievement.

The research also indicates that these children are also more advanced socially - they tend to meet a greater range of adults and adapt more quickly to situations.

'My own experience bears this out,' says Jane Lowe, of Education Otherwise. 'They nearly always show a greater ease with children of all ages.'

Mr Harrison-Jennings remains unconvinced that children at home are well socialised. 'School is about being part of a corporate institution and behaving accordingly - queuing and waiting your turn,' he says. 'You need that skill of deferring gratification.' Many children find school frustrating and restrictive but learning to cope with the inadequacies of any system is, he believes, essential for a child's future development.

And as he points out, how can any child learn such an important lesson in isolation?

Despite the lack of research in this country, there is a body of evidence growing in America which suggests that home education is successful there. As Professor Meighan points out: 'The question of whether home-educated children will lose out should, now that evidence has accumulated, be replaced with, 'why are they so remarkably successful?' '