A nationwide study of home education:
early indications and wider implications
Education Now, Summer 1999, No. 24
This three year study of home education involves I000 families, with a particular focus on the under us. It will be published in full early in the year 2000. Several hundred children participated in this first national assessment programme of children educated, electively, outside the school system. These assessments measured psychological stability, academic attainment and social skills. One main area of the research, however, consisted of 135 interviews conducted with home educating families, in their own homes. Here are some of the results of the study to date.
Home education is often associated with 'middle class professionals'. This study, however, found quite the reverse to be the case. Based upon an initial analysis, it was found that more parents were involved in manual and semi-skilled occupations than professional. More extraordinary, was the finding that the children whose parents have been classified as from the lower end of the social scale fared substantially better. Previous research supports the idea that parental social class does effect educational outcomes, but the suggestion that children from lower social classes can outperform their higher social class peers is quite possibly, unique. Perhaps the professional parents are more secure with their child's development and, therefore, may take a more relaxed view of their child's abilities at this early age. Conversely, parents of the lower end of the social scale may be more conscious of the decision to home educate, thus placing more emphasis on their child's early abilities. Further analysis will show whether this effect applies to the older children also.
Trained school teachers made up almost 1/4 of the parents. It was mostly the mother who was trained to teach and many had, if they had taught at all, done so for a short time. Despite the abundance of teacher parents it was notable that two out of three parents had received no teacher training. In many cases, teacher-parents said that teacher training made them realise that parents could teach. While some teacher-parents found their teaching experience a hindrance, others found it an asset. The consensus was that teacher training equipped parents to better communicate with their local education authority. Interestingly, two-thirds of the parents questioned found their own schooling to have been 'good' or 'average'. Despite this, almost half had left school at 16.
Motivation to home educate
Over half of the reasons given for home educating related to school, such as, 'unhappy with current school education', 'class sizes too large' and 'bullying'. Almost one-third of motivations listed were child-centred; 'we wanted to stimulate our child's learning', 'it is the child's choice' and 'meets out child's needs', and one in five parents describe their motivation in terms of their philosophy, referring to their' ideology', 'lifestyle', their 'faith' and the 'lack of morality in society'. When families become acquainted with other home educators, as well as related literature, they adopted a more philosophical approach to education generally, often believing that the present education system needed reform.
When children under 11 years of age decided to go, or to return to school, it was often based on a desire to have more friends. Some parents simply felt that they had reached a stage where they needed more support. Amongst those children in the study who entered school, neither the parents nor children related their decision to the quality of education in school. Compromise was often a factor in such decisions where home was no longer able, for whatever reason, to cater for the child's needs.
Preliminary analysis of the literacy assessments conducted with sixty 6, 6 and 10 year-olds indicated that the home-educated children demonstrated a high standard of literacy when contrasted with national attainment levels. Even where children were described by their parents or by themselves as 'poor' readers, they were often, nevertheless, meeting or out-performing, national targets. Age-norm related reading skills were not necessarily a priority for home educators. Some children read exceptionally early, others were described by their families as 'late readers'.
All the children whose families were approached, following their child's random selection for literacy assessment, agreed to participate. Some parents did, however, comment that their children would be unable to complete the test, even though they were willing to attempt it. It was interesting, then, to observe that the children, nevertheless, performed well. Conversely, some of the children parents saw as high fliers, performed rather less well.
Throughout the research it was observed that parents were often unable to predict their child's abilities. One possible cause of parent's unawareness of their children's abilities may be attributable to the fact that home-educated children are not subjected to continual testing and since they are able to learn in their own way, the extent of their knowledge often goes detected.
Parental supplied data indicated that more home educated children fell within the early and late reading brackets than the norm during the interviews, those children identified as non4eading 7 to II year-olds tended to be literary minded, enjoying literature despite their not exhibiting a need to read to themselves. Cross-referencing reading attainment scores with preliminary data on the 8 to 11 year-olds from the psychological scales, suggested that such children were not unduly affected by their late reading. Notably, children from religious backgrounds often read the earliest: perhaps, the results of exposure to texts containing minimal illustration.
Tentative results suggest that the children assessed, demonstrated high levels of ability and good social skills. They appear to benefit from a curriculum tailored to their individual needs and from the attention given to them by their families. Love and security within the family, regardless of whether the family had one parent, two parents of the same-sex, or two opposite sex parents, positively contributed to the children's ability to learn, as did the absence of academic and peer pressures often associated with schooling. The opportunity to learn through talk was also contributory. The overall implication is that children may benefit from the self motivation that stems from greater parental participation in their learning process, a more flexible curriculum and an individualised educational programme that reflects their own interests.
A growing trend
In 1997 Roland Meighan suggested that there may be as many as 50,000 children receiving a home-based education throughout the United Kingdom. Now, in 1999 it would be this author's conjecture that 50,000 may be a conservative estimate. if numbers of home educators are, as the evidence suggests, increasing, then this may well be an indication that growing numbers of parents are uneasy with the present mainstream system in the UK.
The way ahead: a third way?
What has come to light during the research is that many parents home educated because they perceive it as the only accessible alternative to school. Often the decision appeared to be a compromise. The optimum, it appeared, would be for the third alternative, the 'third way in education', whereby each child could adopted a flexible curriculum suited to his or her individual needs, in-school, out of school or flexitime by choice.
©P. Rothermel 1999