Author Interview: Helen E. Lees

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Helen Lees is a Lecturer at Newman University, Birmingham, UK. She is founding Editor-in-Chief of Other Education – the journal of educational alternatives and founding convenor of the BERA Alternative Education SIG. Her book, Education Without Schools, is reviewed here this month. 

Questions: Naomi Hodgson

Why did you decide to write Education Without Schools?

Education Without Schools is a monograph version of my 2011 PhD thesis “The gateless gate of home education discovery: What happens to the self of adults upon discovery of the possibility and possibilities of an educational alternative?”, although in the re-writing, I found the book moved a step beyond the work of the thesis. About half of the monograph is new work. Since the research for the thesis, things had happened in the field that advanced our understanding, but also my thinking, and knowledge had developed further. So the initial impulse was publication of my PhD but it became a new work, which drew significantly on the thesis research data.

What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

At the start of the book are three quotes which I give here because they sum up why I bothered to write this book: “You cannot write about education and think only of schools”, written by A. S. Neill (1936). “We want some honesty. We want some sticking to the law. We want them to be clear about what they are doing. We want them to stop hiding home education because people might want to do it, and I have heard that very often”, said during a Select Committee evidence session (2012). And “Deep-seated prejudice against home education is widespread”, said in written evidence at the same time to the Committee. (All of these are references used in the book).

I had seen how home education had been treated as a legal educational option during the Badman Review of 2009, which was a disastrous treatment: so ignorant on the part of the State. Independent of that Review as situation, I had a fantastic data set of people shocked, surprised, enlightened, rapturous, delighted, jealous – so many emotions of discovery – at finding out about educational alternatives away from mainstream education. I wanted to set all that in a context of current schooling issues, education choices, human rights, the law, of politics, and policy. I also wanted to address some of the social injustices around that treatment, not just for home educators and home education but also for those unfamiliar with it as existent and as a pathway for self and becoming. It seemed to me ridiculous in present times to keep education as a national (and international) concept at a stage of infancy where assumptions about “compulsory” schooling were foremost in people’s minds when education was mentioned. I mean, isn’t it crazy that in the UK children don’t have to go to school but most people think they do? I felt addressing that basic error was a job to do.

But the reality of that fact is complex so it needed context: when does that fact apply and when not, for instance. Since beginning the PhD in 2007 I had met a lot of parents and some children in my “travels” and discussions around the research who were very keen to know more about home education. I found myself, however, too often having the same introductory conversations about method, legality, community, socialisation concerns, and so on. There are great websites that deal with those formative basics but beneath that information was a lacuna that I could address: what happens at the point of discovery and why is discovery so happenstance? I really wanted to offer a work that told the story of the option of home education as discoverable. In the end, however, the book became more theoretical than any kind of introduction to an option. Why in this world do some things remain hidden from view?

Educationally, silences really matter and we need, I think, to unpack those. It was and still is for me the theory and philosophy of home education as possibility in law and in life as educational pathway that is the story needing to be told. The book was, for me, a start to this work. It lays a foundation for understanding this other option. Imagining another way can be difficult for people, so used are we to the school in our collective imagination. I’m not saying home education is for everyone but it is an option – for the short or long term, for many more than currently have the concept of its viability. The book is to widen our conception of education.


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?

It is fascinating. Home education and educational alternatives more broadly are at the heart of education, acting as lever to lift the black box lid of what we do not understood enough, what there is yet to understand. I am interested very much in home education itself but more than that I’m in fact interested in what home education does to education broadly conceived as a thing in the world. It changes it and our understanding. So just as a philosophical resource it is highly valuable, but of course for that to function we need people to do it and practice it and be open to researchers who look inside its epistemological and ontological worlds. It’s a world(s) that has so much to tell us about the “human” and its development; its desires for living and being, including in relation to all other life. Such a cool area to research but also deeply complicated –a rabbit’s hole of wonder - and can be tricky – whether on account of social politics or educational complexity. Philosophically, it demands an interdisciplinary approach in the gathering of materials to think with.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

It has been published in hardback so I hope everyone reading this interview will go and ask their library to order in a copy because individuals will find it hard to justify the expense. (The e-book is cheaper.) It perhaps doesn’t need to be published for a mass market because I wrote it for parents, but some of those who have read it have told me it is written more for an academic audience. For this audience – or any reader – I would like it to provoke new thought. I would certainly like it to be read and discussed as widely as possible. So, thanks for this interview and the book review – whatever it says it will give the ideas in the book publicity, which is the main thing for me.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

I’m as I write this in the final stages of editing the manuscript for submission to the publisher of the Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education, which I’m co-editing with Professor Nel Noddings. It contains many chapters from members of PESGB and PES. Nearly a third of the 28 chapters are by philosophers. That has been a great project to be involved with. A thrilling experience, in fact. The work in it is so interesting and working with Nel is a huge privilege, and at Palgrave, Andrew James is a visionary commissioning editor.

I’m also publishing, as Editor-in-Chief, two issues a year of Other Education – the journal of educational alternatives, and that is going well. We are getting in the kinds of pieces that can develop the field. I’d like to write up some papers of my own that I have in mind and there are chapters and papers promised - mostly in and around alternative educational issues. There are other things. But a cup of tea and a biscuit first.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

It is the driving force of understanding education. It matters because we cannot do education ignorantly. We have to think about it and philosophy helps us with that vital primary task.

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