Home-education: a critical evaluation
Paper presented at The British Psychological Society
Annual Education Conference, The University of Exeter 1998
This research explored the aims and practices of home-educators in the UK. A mixed methodology was employed. In order that fundamental information could be collated, home-education questionnaires were distributed to a broad section of the home-education community. Using completed questionnaires, participants for further stages of the research were randomly selected. Subsequent procedures involved interviews with 100 families, literacy appraisal of children in three age groups, administration of the ‘Performance Indicators in Primary Schools’ measure to three age groups, and use of the ‘Children’s Assertiveness Behaviour Scale’, ‘Rutter Scale’ and ‘Goodman, Strengths and Difficulties Scale’. The research was undertaken to generate wider knowledge of home-education and consider implications, if any, for education generally. Specifically, the study was designed to evaluate home-education. Data collection is current and full analyses will not be completed before April 1999. However, tentative results suggest that the children assessed, demonstrated high levels of ability and good social skills. They appeared to benefit from a curriculum tailored to their individual needs and from the attention given to them by their families. The wider 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.
School is not compulsory in the United Kingdom. Families involving about 50,000 children throughout the United Kingdom are estimated to have elected not to use the school system (Meighan 1997). This figure does not include traveller children, numbers of whom in the secondary-school age bracket alone are estimated at 10,000 (OFSTED). Home-education incidence cannot be stated with accuracy because there is no legal requirement to register children who do not attend school and many parents choose to avoid contact with their local education authority (Lowden, 1993).
Previous home-education research by Meighan (1995, 1997), Brown (1978), Blacker (1981), Webb (l990) and Thomas (1998) has examined home-education from the perspective of home-educators, whilst the works of Petrie (1992), Lowden (1993) and Bates (1996) investigated the relationship between home-educators and local education authorities. Blacker (1981) and Webb (l990) presented case studies, providing an insight into home-education. Meighan (1995, 1997) summarised international perspectives on home-education, stimulating a debate on the many learning styles adopted by children when not under pressure to adapt to one prescribed approach. Contributing to research on informal learning, Thomas (1998) interviewed 100 home-educating families in the United Kingdom and Australia, concluding that learning may occur in the most informal and incidental ways.
This study endeavours to complement previous home-education research by examining, through a multi-method approach, the aims and practices of home-educators in the United Kingdom. The research is designed to provide the most comprehensive account of home-education to date and includes the first national assessment program of a sample of children educated, electively, outside the school system.
The research was divided into four main sections:
Part 1: Access
Conversations with home-educating families.
Observations (participant) of home-educators at local and national meetings and during organised activities.
Interviews with Local Education Authorities.
Part 2: Survey Data
Questionnaire survey distributed to home-educating families.
Part 3: Educational and Psychological Data
Part 4: Interview Data
Interviews with 100 home-educating families in their homes.
Questionnaires were distributed as inserts in home-education journals, through the Internet and electronic mail, and with the assistance of educational inspectors. The goal was to receive a completed questionnaire from each of at least one thousand home-educating families.
Questionnaire returns were classified by child-age and a computerised randomising program selected participants for each of the child-assessment procedures mentioned above. The researcher administered all the PIPS 1 assessments to children in their own homes. For practical reasons parents administered the other measures, with a random sample of these children being re-assessed by the researcher at a later date. Subjects administered their own self-assessment scales.
One hundred interviews were conducted with one hundred home-educating families in their own homes throughout the United Kingdom. Thirty-five of these families were tracked over period of time by being interviewed twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of a nine month interval.
Questionnaire contents were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively. Interview data was qualitatively analysed using the NUD.IST computer package, (Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorizing). The researcher’s university department examined results from the PIPS assessments: children’s identities were protected by pseudonyms. This writer undertook the NLP analysis. Use of the PIPS and NLP assessments allowed for comparison against national statistics.
Results: Early Indications
Over 900 questionnaires were completed and returned prior to June 1998.
A preliminary analysis of 50 completed questionnaires was conducted, involving 123 children, 16 with ‘special needs’. Parents considering their own schooling to have been ‘good’ or ‘average’ numbered 71%, with 43% having ceased ‘formal’ education at 16 years of age. Trained schoolteachers made up 23% (n=88) of the parents. Whilst some 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.
The national curriculum was followed by just 14% of families with 58% stating that they did not use it; 28% families referred to it occasionally. Learning routines, partial or otherwise, were followed by 74% of families. Routines were often organised around seasonal changes, practicalities such as work and externally organised activities. Within families, age-norm related reading skills were not necessarily a priority. At the extremes, some children read exceptionally early, while others were late readers. The data indicated that more home-educated children fell within these brackets than the norm. Non-reading 7 to 11 year-olds tended to be literary minded, enjoying literature despite their not exhibiting a need to read for themselves. Cross- referencing reading attainment scores with preliminary data on the 8 to 11-year-olds from the Michelson, Rutter and Goodman scales, suggested that such children were not unduly affected by their late reading. Notably, children from religious backgrounds often read the earliest: perhaps, the result of exposure to texts containing minimal illustration.
Preliminary analysis of the NLP assessments for years 1, 3 and 5, indicated that the home-educated children demonstrated a high standard of literacy when contrasted with national attainment levels.
Preparatory analysis of the PIPS baseline assessment data (n=35) indicated that 65%, or 23 children, scored over 75%; nationally, the figure for children achieving over 75% was 5.1%. The average national score was 45%, whilst that of the sample was 81%. When assessed nine months later, it appeared that the children’s progress over that period was slower than that associated with school children during their reception year (Tymms, Merrell, and Henderson, 1996). This later observation was offset by the home-educated children’s baseline attainment and indeed, a majority were still ahead of the school educated children at the end of their ‘reception year’. At the end of ‘reception year’, the national average score for Mathematics was 51.5%; the average for the sample was 68.7%. The ‘end of reception year’ national average for Reading was 44.9%, whilst that of the sample was 59.3%.
Interview data contrasted with the earlier findings of Meighan (1995) and Thomas (1998) who surmised that home-educators gradually moved towards a more flexible approach to learning. Whilst the research at hand agreed with the idea that ‘flexibility’ was a characteristic trait of home-educators, the study found that within families, parents adopted different approaches to different children at different times. Flexibility may have resulted in a shift from informality to formality just as often as the reverse; thus emphasising the highly individualised curriculum that home-educated children experience.
This study also found that home-education was not confined to any particular social group. The sample included travellers, those on very low incomes, families whose children had been in care, mixed race families, deeply religious families, single parent families and same sex parent families. Parenting styles ranged from libertarian to autocratic. There was more or less an equal spread between parents who did and did not hold professional qualifications. Parents in manual employment however, outnumbered those employed professionally.
Often following commencement of home-education, a shift in family convention occurred. Most notable was ‘loss’ of one income. Parents often altered their working patterns to accommodate the children’s learning and within many families both parents worked part-time. Parents also regularly took to studying. The research found that for many, the onset of home-education led a previously conventional family to radically alter their perspective on life and education.
Discussion of Early Findings – a brief overview
There were four main findings:
However, there were huge variations within the group. Whilst some excelled socially, others did not, whilst some read to a high standard, others did not. It is important to note that the findings above relate to the sample as a group and that there were exceptions at both extremes.
Brief Discussion of Assessment Program
There are many possible explanations as to why the children generally performed to such a high standard on the assessment program. Some possible factors are considered below. Analysis is current and further, or alternative, explanations may yet emerge.
The children aged 4 to 7 years who contributed to the program had, for the most part, never attended school. It is conceivable that they were, as a group, more intelligent than children in general. If so, contributory factors may have been:
It is feasible that those children participating in the assessment program were essentially a mixed ability group who had been motivated and encouraged by:
It is possible that those who had spent time in the school system, had in fact benefited from that system far more than the average child, but that this ‘benefit’ had manifested itself by seeding the problem that had led to withdrawal. (i.e. the child had read early and thus become uncomfortable in the classroom, and possibly disruptive).
It is conceivable that had these children either entered, or remained in, school, they might have achieved even higher potential. However, given the diverse socio-economic backgrounds of these children, it appears more likely that it was their common experience of home education that was the major contributory factor to their high level performance. What is more difficult to determine is exactly which components, or combination of factors, contributed to the sample’s positive assessment outcomes.
The assessment program focused upon those children aged up to 11 years of age and thus cannot reflect upon how children aged 11+ might have fared. Children in the upper age range would have been more likely to have spent time in school, whereas many of those in the under 11 age range had very often never been to school, or had been for a short time only. Many of the parents with younger children had placed them into school initially whilst simultaneously experiencing doubts about the system. These concerns may have only manifested themselves after the child had spent a period in school.
If the preliminary indications are confirmed by further analysis, there will be a need for additional work and investigation of possible explanations.
Brief Discussion of Interviews
Interviews took place with parents and their children. The children present during these meetings varied in age between babyhood through to adulthood.
The children interviewed demonstrated a feeling of security within their family environment that apparently contributed to their self-confidence, self-motivation and generally high self-esteem. Evidence for this suggestion emerged from the family unity that was so often present, regardless of the social conditions under which the family lived. The preliminarily findings suggested that the children, irrespective of whether they emanated from broken homes, poor housing or itinerant lifestyles, benefited from parental attention to the extent that, possibly, this factor alone gave them self-confidence and the encouragement to learn.
Home-educated children apparently benefited from receiving concentrated attention, coupled with a flexible curriculum designed to reflect their own interests. They appeared self-confident, self-motivated and demonstrated good levels of attainment.
The findings did not in any way suggest an indictment of teachers or schools operating within the confines of the existing system. The results do, however, raise questions about the inflexible nature of the strategy employed at present, for the raising of children, in the UK.
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©P. Rothermel 1999