What price a 'proper' education?

Albert Einstein, Jessica Mitford, Gerald Durrell - all gifted, passionate, shining - and none of them went near a classroom. What does that tell us? By David Cohen
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The Independent Online
No matching socks, no clean knickers and where's the reader? Stuff down the cornflakes, dash for the door. Every school morning, the same last-minute hectic dash. If there's one thing Nineties parents are absolutely sure of, it is that a "proper" education is the prime determinant for success in life. We'll move home and hearth to get our pride and joys into the right catchment area, to get them in at 9am and out at 3pm, to read and write on cue, all in the name of providing the best possible start to their hopefully "brilliant" careers.

And then, when the little darlings are safely packed off, we sit down with a steaming cuppa, open the newspaper and read in the obituaries: "Gifted, shining, passionate, brilliant - and never went to school!" It's enough to make you choke on your biscuit.

Last week it was Jessica Mitford, the celebrated English author of Hons and Rebels and The American Way of Death, who died, aged 78. She had never been to school but was educated instead - along with her five talented sisters - by her mother at the family home in Swinbrook in the Cotswolds. There she devoured the collected works of Bertrand Russell (also educated at home) by the age of 12, penned her first novel by 15 and developed the remarkable traits that would allow her to lead such a fiercely individual and colourful life.

Last year it was Gerald Durrell, naturalist and author of 35 books including the acclaimed My Family and Other Animals, whose obituary declared that he was home-educated from the age of three. His naturalist instincts, we read, were apparent from the start: his first word was "zoo" and he learnt the basics of maths through a series of calculations involving the body parts of bugs and beetles. When he was 14, Durrell was deposited in a public school, but his headmaster mocked him as "the most ignorant boy he had ever come across" and he was soon whisked away.

The list of famous people, both living and deceased, who have appeared to thrive from an unorthodox education is impressive. Scientists Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison were all self-taught or home educated. The Bronte sisters, Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Allcott, CS Lewis, George Bemard Shaw, Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing, Sue Townsend and Mary Wesley head a long list of writers whose parents elected not to send them to school.

Their education conjures forth an image not of quadrangles and classrooms, but of wandering through woods, communing with nature, indulging in outrageous flights of fancy, reading under trees and passionately following interests. Their books - like Little Women, Alice in Wonderland and The Secret Garden - portray childhood as a realm of wonder, innocence, insight and imagination, a land close to the spiritual source from which the rest of us are cut off as we grow older.

It is an evocative view of childhood that many parents subscribe to in the early years of parenthood: allowing what is there to come out, letting them learn at their own pace, delighting in what they can do rather than worrying about what they can't.

Why does the lack of a formal education seem to produce such extraordinary people? Or are we just talking about extraordinary talented people who would have succeeded anyway? The latter is hard to prove, but events of the sort that befell Thomas Edison - his teacher said his brain was "addled" and wrote him off as "uneducable" - so permeate the literature that one questions whether their confidence would have survived the school system.

Yehudi Menuhin, 80, who by the age of 10 had spent less than a day at school, puts it thus: "I have no academic training at all, relying only on my own reading, philosophy, thought, and breadth of experience. In a way, my lack of formal education means that I can distance myself from details and take a broader view of problems that face us."

The space to develop an original take on life is a common thread running through the lives of the unconventionally educated.

Sue Jennings, famous within her field as a pioneer of drama therapy in the UK, never went to school until the age of eight and even then, it was only a tiny village school with two rooms. "My passion was for the theatre and for ballet," she says. "I was very self-motivated - I used to get up at 5am to do three hours of practice voluntarily. I had phenomenal energy. The most tiring thing is doing something that one doesn't see the point of, but I was doing what I loved, so I was never tired. I was reading Shakespeare by the age of nine. I used to make up my own choreographies and entertain the family using my sister as a guinea pig. It wasn't work, it was play, but it wasn't a free-for-all. I very much had a formal lesson pattern run every day by my mother."

Much to her chagrin, Jennings's alternative education came to an abrupt halt when she was deposited in a conventional secondary school. She found it stultifying, hated every minute and became expert at developing fake temperatures to bunk off the lessons - like science - she hated most. She left after competing her O-levels, burning her uniform, books and hat in an impressive funeral pyre on the day of departure.

Does she feel she would have been different if all her schooling had been in the orthodox lane? "I would have developed ways of hiding and toning down my eccentricity," she says. "I may not have developed the courage to be who I am. For me home education is all about developing the courage to be who you are. Courage not to assume that other people know best, to challenge the status quo, to make the right choices for you and not to be defensive about it. The headmaster could not understand why, with my grades, I did not want to go on to university. I had much more exciting plans. I went to university when I was 33 because that was when I was ready. Later I pioneered drama therapy, which is about helping people to unblock their creativity. It's about re-activating their capacity to play, a lost art for many people after going through the rigours of the school examination system."

Zoe Readhead, daughter of AS Neill and now principle of Summerhill, the alternative school founded by her father in Suffolk with an extraordinarily liberal regime, where pupils can choose to go to lessons or not, says that it doesn't surprise her that so many famous people had such an unconventional education. "They have been given the space to pursue their passion. A passion by definition, is something that requires you to give up almost everything else to follow that route. In conventional schools, children are not allowed to follow their passions and so their gift is lost and their energy is directed into cheating the system. How useful is that?"

But surely the cost of following one's passion is enormous gaps in one's education? "So what," says Readhead. "I'm hopeless at maths - can't multiply or divide - but I find that I don't really need it. The things I do know are far more important to me." It's like the difference between having a football coach who, rather than trying to make you into the complete player, is happy to let you play to your strengths. "If not knowing how to add does bother you, you can take your GCSEs when you're 70. Education doesn't finish just because you've left school," she says.

Indeed, going to university early - as in the case of mathematical genius Ruth Lawrence, who went to Oxford age 13 - or late, like Sue Jennings, is common with home learners. They learn to respect their own pace. And because their education never formally began, so the process of learning never ends.

Interestingly, very few famous rock stars have had an unorthodox education. They need, it appears, the conforming cage of conventional or religious schools to fuel the energy that they burn on stage.

But it is also a fact that most of the famous figures educated at home are either elderly or dead. As Mary Wesley, author of The Camomile Lawn, admits, being educated as she was by a series of governesses at home wasn't that unusual for upper-class girls in the Twenties and Thirties. While boys, like her brother, were sent to Eton and on to Oxford, education was regarded as useless for girls who were "just waiting to be married".

So is home education still viable in the "classless and sexually liberated" Nineties? According to Education Otherwise, an organisation set up in 1977 to support parents who decide to educate their children at home, at least 25,000 families throughout the UK choose to do so. They are all different. Some are hothouses. Others adopt the philosophy of following the child's interests. Some home educators still dress their children in school uniform and make them sit behind a table, though such types are rare. The only thing they have in common is a shared dedication to their children's upbringing.

Caitlin Moran, 21, who wrote her first novel, The Chronicles of Naremo, at age 13, was home educated from the age of 11, along with her five siblings, by her mother, Margaret, a member of Education Otherwise. No green fields or lush woodlands for them. Just an overcrowded 3-bedroom council flat in Wolverhampton.

"We had cabin fever and hated each other. In between fights, we taught ourselves. My mother gave us a couple of lessons, then said - you know where the library is, here's a computer, now we get on with it. And we did. I didn't waste time on things that were supposed to be good for me, but did what I fancied. I got into cake decorating and witchcraft. Then I wrote my first novel. People still persist in asking me: do you know much about maths'? I say no, but I know enough about English and how to use words to earn loads of money. And so I can hire an accountant who knows loads about maths and probably likes it. That shuts them up."

Was she lonely at home? "Oh yeah. But that's part of what made me who I am. I had no friends, so I constructed a huge imaginary world. I resented it like fuck at the time, but now I'm pleased because if I had continued at school, I would have gone to Cambridge and I'd be there now, making loads of friends, and they'd all be saying: "When we leave university, we'll write novels and TV sitcoms," whereas I grew up with such unbounded self-confidence that I've already done those things and am now working on a novel about drugs, and another about sex and rock. I'm trying to cover all the big themes by the age of 25."

The abiding impression of parents prepared to take their children out of school is one of enormous dedication to their children. Indeed, according to Caitlin her mother is a "groovy person who loves motherhood".

But for most parents, the morning still comes when they wrap up their little 'un in scarves, tie up hisbootlaces, stuff a Disney lunchbox in his bag and say: "You're starting school today". The excitement of launching their child into the big wide world soon wears off to be replaced by a very unarticulated, private grieving as they become dimly aware that the uniqueness of their child - the side most developed, precocious and yes, eccentric - is being ironed out by the narrow formality of the conventional school system. Most parents adjust quickly because they perceive no real alternative. Home education is redolent of an age which ended circa the 1930s, an age when it was fashionable to be eccentric, when careers were less structured and when "passing exams" was less critical to life success. Even the Royal Family send their children to school nowadays.