Anna Fazackerley finds that those who are home-schooled may be more mature than their peers.
"Your educational background is outlandishly weird," a frank undergraduate admissions tutor at the University of Cambridge told prospective student Ann Charles during her interview. What surprised him was not Charles' qualifications - her application listed the standard A-level and GCSE exams - but the fact that she had never been to school.
Charles comes from one of an estimated 30,000 families in the UK who are shunning the school system in favour of an education at home. Charles'
experience suggests that they have not yet had a big impact on the higher education admissions system, but many involved in the movement say universities need to wake up to the reality of home-educated students.
Mike Fortune-Wood, founder of support website Home Education UK, says that the home-education community has grown considerably in recent years. The rise is attributed to a variety of factors, including growing parental dissatisfaction with the school curriculum. Fortune-Wood points out that there are now many teenagers being educated at home who will soon be making choices about whether to enter higher education. "My feeling is that universities are likely to be deluged with applications from the home-education background in the future," he says.
The US is already farther down this track than the UK - Jan estimated 5 per cent of US children, 1.3 million, are taught at home. Many universities are used to seeing applications from students with this background. Harvard University reserves undergraduate places specifically for home-educated children in the belief that they have something special to offer.
It remains to be seen how the growing British cohort of home-schooled teenagers will adapt to university, and how universities will react to them. Fortune-Wood says there is an information gap because those who go to university often drop out of the home-education community without providing feedback. However, people involved with home education are optimistic that it will equip children for whatever path they choose.
Paula Rothermel, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Durham who has spent years surveying families who have opted out of school, argues that children who have been taught at home may well have a head start when it comes to higher education. "Universities are more likely to sit up and take notice of home-educated children when they are looking at hundreds of applications. They tend to stick out," she says.
On the face of it, one might assume that a child who has never set foot in a school could not cope with being cast out alone into a big university.
But Rothermel believes that these children are much more prepared for a university education than their counterparts. She explains that they have had a greater degree of independence, often choosing what they want to study as well as pursuing lots of activities beyond textbooks and exams. "I think home education is a positive choice," she adds.
Charles firmly believes that her unusual education has made her a more rounded individual. She laughs at the image of home-schooling being simply one long round of lessons at the kitchen table. She studied for exams (taking her first GCSE at 13) but also spent a great deal of time outside the house - Jhelping in a local playgroup, playing hockey with other home-educated children and taking part in local theatre productions. "You are just so busy. There are so many opportunities. And you are involved in your community - Jyou aren't just a nameless person in a class of 30," she says.
She agrees with Rothermel that a home education makes a child self-motivated, and she feels this becomes very evident in making the transition to higher education. "The advantage of having an upbringing where you know your own mind is that you think carefully about what you are doing and choose for yourself. You are not just on autopilot," she says.
Her experience bears this out. Unable to find a university course that would suit her and daunted by the idea of accumulating large debts, Charles decided against the traditional university path. She has now enrolled on her second Open University course.
Her younger sister, Ruth, who is 18, exhibits similar independence. She has just applied for a place on a youth and community work course at Durham - and has made a decision not to apply for anything else. "People said you can't just apply to one course, but it's what I want to do. If I don't get in, I'll go to Africa and work there," she says.
The two sisters chose to take GCSEs and A levels to enable them to apply to university when the time came. But Brenda Halliday, a trustee of the Home Education Advisory Service, says qualifications can be a stumbling block for home educators.
"It is becoming more and more difficult to take exams as an external candidate," she says. "Coursework is problematic because you need an independent adjudicator to judge it. There are some exam boards that set exams and do not require coursework, and that is one option."
Fortune-Wood adds that many home-educating families decide to skip GCSEs altogether, viewing them as too simple and of little value. This makes it harder to compare them with their counterparts in the traditional school system.
Study aside, there is some dispute over whether missing out on school makes it harder to adapt to the social experience of university. Deborah Eyre, the director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth based at the University of Warwick, says it is worrying that children who are home-schooled may not socialise daily with people of their own age group.
Her academy is working with 20 children who have been educated at home - testimony to the fact that such an education can yield extremely good academic results. Eyre works hard to overcome any social problems and encourages these pupils to mix with others at the academy.
"For students who are home-educated, that second community is particularly important as it is their sole peer community. Some of the early data we have suggest that they value it enormously," she says. "We ask them to undertake a three-week residential over the summer, which is very challenging for them."
Ben Snook, who was educated at home and is now in the final year of a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, agrees that this is a potential obstacle. "It is difficult for someone who is home-educated to get social contact with their peer group - you can't deny that." But he argues that parents can compensate for this by sending their children to after-school activities.
Snook does not know anyone else at Cambridge who was home-schooled. In his initial interview, concerns were raised that he had never been in an institutional environment before and he was warned that he would have to live within its rules. He feels he has adapted well. "It works pretty much ideally for me," he says.
As home-schooling can obviously develop young people able to succeed, should universities be formulating admissions policies to accommodate students who have not been to school?
Charles thinks not. She argues that every family creates its own method of learning, which makes it impossible for universities to generalise about what a home education means. She says that universities must treat each applicant as an individual.
"But I would say if you have someone land on your desk who has been home-educated, look at them and take them very seriously as they will have had an interesting experience of life," she says. "Take a risk even if they haven't got the right qualifications because they are likely to bring more to your university."
The US experience
- In the US, it is estimated that about one in 33 school-aged children is home-schooled. The number of such children is thought to have risen by 7 to 15 per cent a year in the past decade
- Home-schooling has grown fast since the 1980s, when many fundamentalist Christians began to pull their children out of school for moral and educational reasons
- Research shows that the SAT scores of home-schooled students tend to be above the average, and such children are often more mature than their state-school counterparts
- Home-schooling websites list up to 50 colleges and universities that, they say, specifically target home-schooled students
- Stanford University welcomes home-schooled students. Every application it receives from a home-schooled student is flagged with a code that helps admission officials chart trends. The university, which says such students bring "intellectual vitality" to campus, has noted a rise in such applications since it started tracking them in 1999.