The history of education is far too vast
a topic to do justice to here. Within home
education circles, however, a lot of our influences
come from overseas, so there are some aspects
that I consider worthy of  discussion.


The school system as we know it has not always been like this. It’s funny, but I think most of us have an underlying belief that school is “the way it should be,” and yet the education system as we know it has been in existence for less than two hundred years.

Prior to this, it was entirely the norm for children to be educated at home, if they received any official education at all, or they were raised to continue the family enterprise, whatever that was. Private tutors were the privilege of the wealthy and ongoing education only for those with affluent benefactors.

Australian History

The beginnings of the education system in Australia came with the early days of settlement. The first schools in Australia were established and funded by churches. Most Colonial Governments introduced National (secular) schools by mid 1860s, although some churches were not confident about the new National schools, so a dual system was written into legislation. [1]

Australia was established as a British colony, but it does not follow the British education system. The reason is in Australia’s convict past. The wealthy free settlers and the religious leaders in Old Sydney Town were concerned about the morality of the convicts’ children. They were known as the Currency Lads and Lasses, and these children roamed around unattended while their convict parents worked.

The religious leaders applied to Britain for the children to attend compulsory schooling where they were given a strict moral, religious education. This was before schooling was available for ordinary children in Britain, so Australia developed an education system before Britain had developed one for their masses. Because it was compulsory, it was also free, and still is for Australian citizens. [2]

Certainly in colonial times, with families living in remote communities and isolated properties as well as cities, children were often educated at home. The extent of education was often dependent on a child’s own thirst for knowledge, and restricted by their family’s finances.

As communities grew, schools were built and formed an integral part of the development of community life. Getting an education became equated with freedom – if you could read, write and do sums, jobs beyond the menial were within your reach.

Twentieth Century Theories of Education

Scholars are always trying to create structures which either explain or direct the shape of things that are, or are as they would like them to be. Of course there are thousands of theories of education, and the more I read on the subject, the more my head spins!

Generally, it seems roundly accepted that the following theories have had an influence across the western world. These major themes are identified by George F. Kneller in chapter three of Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. [3]

PROGRESSIVISM (John Dewey, William H. Kilpatrick, John Childs)

  1. Education should be life itself, not a preparation for living.
  2. Learning should be directly related to the interests of the child.
  3. Learning through problem solving should take precedence over the inculcating of subject matter.
  4. The teacher’s role is not to direct but to advise.
  5. The school should encourage cooperation rather than competition.
  6. Only democracy permits – indeed encourages – the free interplay of ideas and personalities that is a necessary condition of true growth.

PERENNIALISM (Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler)

  1. Despite differing environments, human nature remains the same everywhere; hence, education should be the same for everyone.
  2. Since rationality is man’s highest attribute, he must use it to direct his instinctual nature in accordance with deliberately chosen ends.
  3. It is education’s task to import knowledge of eternal truth.
  4. Education is not an imitation of life but a preparation for it.
  5. The student should be taught certain basic subjects that will acquaint him with the world’s permanencies.
  6. Students should study the great works of literature, philosophy, history, and science in which men through the ages have revealed their greatest aspirations and achievements.

ESSENTIALISM (William Bagley, Herman Horne)

  1. Learning, of its very nature, involves hard work and often unwilling application.
  2. The initiative in education should lie with the teacher rather than with the pupil.
  3. The heart of the educational process is the assimilation of prescribed subject matter.
  4. The school should retain traditional methods of mental discipline.

RECONSTRUCTIONISM (George Counts, Theodore Brameld)

  1. Education must commit itself here and now to the creation of a new social order that will fulfil the basic values of our culture and at the same time harmonize with the underlying social and economic forces of the modern world.
  2. The new society must be a genuine democracy, whose major institutions and resources are controlled by the people themselves.
  3. The child, the school, and education itself are conditioned inexorably by social and cultural forces.
  4. The teacher must convince his pupils of the validity and urgency of the reconstructionist solution, but he must do so with scrupulous regard for democratic procedures.
  5. The means and ends of education must be completely re-fashioned to meet the demands of the present cultural crisis and to accord with the findings of the behavioural sciences.

My purpose in including these lists (regardless of how you see them influencing our existing system) is to remind us that a lot of people have put an awful lot of time into thinking how to better educate children. You’re thinking about it too, if you’re thinking about or actually educating your children at home – it’s just that you’re thinking about your own individual child/ren rather than large numbers of classroomsful.

Doubtless all of these theories and more have influenced our current education system in one way or another. My concern as a home educator is not for the system, however, it is for my child. While I can see merit in many of the ideas expressed by the great educational minds of the past and today, I’m left dubious about their immediate relevance to my child, or even the good of society as a whole.

The Evil Within

As the twentieth century progressed, doubt as to the long-term effectiveness of the education system began to be written about with greater authority. While society at large had assumed that drawing groups of children together to be taught by specifically trained educators would be the very best thing imaginable for the children and society,  many began to see that it could, in fact, be detrimental. Writers such as Ivan Illich [4], John Holt [5] and John Taylor Gatto (6] began to encourage parents to resume the personal education of their children.

John Taylor Gatto, a former award-winning US teacher, has done extensive research into the foundations of the American education system and the development of modern schooling. You can read about his findings in his book, “The Underground History of American Education“, or watch an overview on his website.

John’s research and observations are fascinating, and I don’t doubt that with the industrialisation and commercialisation of our Australian society, and the close ties between us and the United States, that these things have also had an influence our education system, too.

In the presentation, The Business of Schooling, it’s stated that traditional forms of instruction had three specific purposes:

  1. To make good people
  2. To make good citizens
  3. To make each student find some particular talents to develop to the maximum

It is unlikely that any modern-day educator could say that our current defining principles are as simplistic.  A fourth purpose has become part of the education system (and society), and we cannot be naive enough to think it is confined to American shores:

The new purpose of schooling—to serve business and government—could only be achieved efficiently by isolating children from the real world, with adults who themselves were isolated from the real world, and everyone in the confinement isolated from one another [7].

Having met John Taylor Gatto in person (I acted as his chauffeur when he spoke at a home education conference held locally a few years ago), I have tremendous respect for the man, the integrity of his research, and the strength of his convictions. I must, however, consider his discussions in the light of Australian educational history, not American.

Perhaps it is best if I suggest that you ask yourself the question: Is the Australian education system teaching our children to think for themselves, or is it aiming to churn out masses who all think the same? Then ask yourself: Is this what I want for my child? How can I change this outcome?

Breaking It Up Into Bite Sized Chunks

In an analysis I heard recently from Chris Davis [8], the school system makes plenty of assumptions, and then some decisions based on efficiency. This looks at the assumptions which form how schools structure learning for so many students.

Here I’m sharing the general idea, not a quoted concept.

  • What is the earliest age a mother is happy to part with her child for a full school day (age 6 when schools were first set up)?
  • What is the latest age a child will stay engaged with classroom structure (age 18 at the inception of school system)?
  • What things must a person know by age 18, in the 12 available years of schooling?
  • Subjects categorised, all relevant knowledge must be imparted to children by age 18, across (at the time) 6 subject areas.
  • 38 school weeks per year, five days per week, five hours per day – high schools mostly have 40 minute-length classes, 8 per day.
  • That’s 8 compartments of ‘learning’, 5 days per week, 38 weeks per year, for 12 years – that’s 18,240 compartments; 3,040 per subject if you’ve only got 6 subjects.

Even at home, we’re likely to compartmentalise some things, just for our own sense of order. Let’s make every effort, though, not to allow rigour to annihilate creativity or quench our child’s love of learning. Whatever structure you put in place, it should support your child’s learning, not dictate it.

How Did We Get Here?

The website for the Holistic Education Network of Tasmania, contains a very interesting flow chart which maps the influences of a great many educators on the ideals of holistic education.

I assumed that teachers, as part of their training, would examine the roots of educational history, and read works by key thinkers on the subject. A number of teacher-friends, however, have assured me that they were never required to do any such thing as part of their training! If you have the time and inclination, such study is an interesting pursuit. Please don’t allow your explorations of this or any subject, however, distract you from the core business of education your child according to their personal needs.

Where Does Home Education Fit?

Despite the fact that for most of human history, home education was the ‘default’, there isn’t a lot of reliable information available as to just how and when the current resurgence took shape. Writers such as Ivan Illich, John Holt and John Taylor Gatto certainly influenced many, and this influence seems to stem from the Holistic era depicted on the HENT flow chart.

During my own upbringing, during several difficult patches with school, home education was never considered an option. I remember being told repeatedly, “schooling is compulsory”. Thankfully, it is education that is compulsory, and it is now well known that it can be more than adequately be provided by loving parents from a stable home base.

Somewhere between the seventies and the nineties, whatever home education revolution began overseas also took root where the seeds were dropped on fertile Australian soil.

Somehow the incidence of people asking, “Oh, are you allowed to do that (home educate), are you?” has dropped off, and a more common response to advice of home education is now, “Oh, I know someone who does that!”, and it’s most often spoken in favourable tones, too.

Moving Forward

Certainly researching how our current education system ended up in such a mess is fascinating, as is reading the thoughts of those who have influenced it. It’s also time-consuming and not, in my opinion, hugely useful in helping us get on with the matter at hand: educating our own children, effectively, from home.

With reference to my own child’s education, however,
it is my responsibility to be the key thinker.

Personally, I find it interesting to look at the influences and decisions that have brought us to this point, but ultimately, I must let it all flow behind me and get on with the business at hand: providing my own child with the highest quality education I can manage.

Ultimately, perhaps the best way forward is to forget who said what to whom, or who is trying to manipulate what, and to persist in our endeavours to engage our own wonderful child with something that will cause them to pursue education for the whole of the rest of their lives.

As you begin, or continue, to shape your child’s educational experience, I do encourage you not to be reactionary or militant as you read or research. Allow yourself thinking time to process what you read, and bring new thoughts into the context of the realities that exist in your home and with your child, in the community you live in.

We are made wise not by the recollection of our past,
but by the responsibility for our future.
~ George Bernard Shaw.

[1] The Funding of Government and Non-Government Schools / History, Covenant document.
[2] Glenda Inverarity, 22nd October 2000, sourced from gradschool.about.com
[3] Paper on Morehead State University, East Kentucky website
[4] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
[5] John Holt, Growing Without Schooling
[6] John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down
[7] John Taylor Gatto, American History Tour, Slide 4
Chris Davis, Turning Hearts CD series, disc 2, How Not to Teach Like School.