Desire Lines in Education

Author: Lorna Norton

Lorna Norton provides an insight into off-piste paths that veer away from mainstream education and their implications on future planning.

Recently I stumbled upon an article from 2018 about desire lines1, the paths people choose to walk instead of the prescribed pavements and pathways made by local governments. The more I began delving into this lovely phenomenon, the more I saw the similarities in choosing a holistic approach to education. More and more families are choosing to step away from mainstream education and follow different approaches to educating their families. It seems fitting to find the similarities in language used to describe this social curiosity and alternative education. 

As I continued reading the article, the wonderful Robert Macfarlane called desire lines “free-will ways” and, with that, my ideas were solidified. The freedom to make our own physical paths mirrored in the phrases you often hear when it comes to alternative education – “following the path less trodden” or “off the beaten path”. And that’s exactly what these desire lines are – pathways people choose with their feet, not chosen for them by others less invested in their journey. 

“If you’ve been walking the same route for years, an itchy-footed urge to go off-piste, even just a few metres, is probably something you’ll identify with …” The Guardian1 

With the numbers of families choosing to flexi-school and educate at home on the rise, listening to the struggles of mainstream education seems to be providing the shift into alternative ways of educating our children. We’re listening to reports and accounts of the difficulties the current education system is facing² ³, the place the majority of our society put their faith in educating our youngest. I’ve had countless conversations recently with families who just aren’t aware of their options and choices when it comes to schooling. It comes as such a surprise to them when we talk of concepts like flexi-schooling, the part-time arrangement between family and school where children are able to access both home education and school education. Doesn’t it seem like the perfect desire line to be able to carve out a path for your own family based on the needs of your children? It’s not a part-time option of shirking responsibility and cutting corners; rather the beautifully positive option of giving children the opportunity to access more. 

“… the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path …” A Furman⁴

There are still so many antiquated views on home education as a defiance or inability to follow societal norms. The community I reside in still regularly faces challenging questions from friends, family and even strangers in the street about their education choices. Desire lines are often referred to as “collective disobedience”, where people shun the prescribed paths and roads. Those responsible for town and rural planning I’m sure feel the frustrations of finding these paths emerging and yet, these are the paths made from the privilege of free will and personal choice. 

“An individual can really write their own story. It’s something really powerful if you do have that agency to move.” A Furman⁴

The forefront of the Department for Education’s planning is the wellbeing of children and their education; guiding people onto the mainstream paths proves the most efficient way of ensuring that for them. Desire lines beyond urban centres are often made by animals – grazing herds of cattle followed then by hikers off their course – but over time it seems that even these paths, made out of a natural ability to read the land, become etched in. When planning legal rights of way for maps, these new paths often become the permanent mapped line. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the education paths people are choosing to become part of the framework for a new mainstream map of education? I love to think there could be a consideration of both. A mutual understanding of both sides of the planning, for the bigger picture. No one knows a child as well as their family – surely there should be a respect that those wanting to educate their children will have the child’s best interest at heart. In my utopian belief of education, individuals are able to access the realms of education they deem to be most appropriate for their family, situated within their individual community, culture and circumstance. Whether that’s mainstream, flexi-schooling or home education or a beautiful mixture. 

“… desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others. They also fascinate scholars, inspire artists, and enchant poets.” New Yorker⁵

Of course, it goes without saying that there are always anomalies to the norm – when desire lines start to have an impact on the environment via erosion and are of detriment to the safety of individuals. This too is the same for people choosing home education, when the safety or wellbeing of the child may be in question. The new talk of more strict monitoring of home educators in my mind isn’t to tighten the reins and control; I see it only as a necessity to protect those who need it. This is where a mutual understanding and consideration of the desire to step off the beaten path really is essential. A little effort to assess adequate learning opportunities on a case-by-case basis could be a more enlightened way of addressing the desire lines of home education but only by those who have the credentials, experience, understanding and respect. Sadly, I fear that, because of the distinct lack of funding in this vitally important education pot, it’s not a realistic dream. If we’re able to retrain neural pathways to help reprogramme our thought processes, is it too much to ask that education policymakers follow suit? To ask that they see education not as a fixed entity but a constantly evolving flow, just as natural learning is?

Fuelled by the current turbulence in education post COVID lockdowns, perhaps this new wave of home educators – those choosing to create desire lines who have previously been on the mainstream paths – will be heard on a more equal footing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take the democratic approach to seeing where the people choose to lay their paths, re-turf the proverbial playing field and see what emerges? 


  1. Bramley EV (2018), Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy the urban planners, The Guardian,
  2. NAHT (2021), A failure to invest – the state of school funding 2021,
  3. Cox D (2021), The government’s mystifying failure to ‘level up’ schools,
  4. Furman A (2012), Desire Lines: determining pathways through the city,
  5. Moor R (2017), Tracing (and Erasing) New York’s Lines of Desire, New Yorker, 


* This post was originally published in December 2021 at:

Lorna Norton is the founder of Kith Homestead, a holistic education space for families and individuals in Yorkshire. A wife and mother, she’s an advocate for natural learning, community-based education and child development. With 15 years of experience working with children and a degree in psychology and education, Lorna is providing families with opportunities to learn.