I have been repeatedly reproached for ignoring what others claim to be powerful and objective evidence of the efficacy of autonomous education. Since most of the large scale research on home education has taken place in North America, I propose to focus upon this.
The research on home education in this country, whether autonomous or structured, is sparse in the extreme. I have mentioned Rothermel's work with thirty five children, five of whom were tested for their reading ability. The most detailed study of autonomous education in the UK is probably Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison's book "How Children Learn at Home", Continuum 2007. In it, they ask twenty six parents to talk about informal learning. This is of course a small, self-selected group. Seven of them were well known figures in the home education world and all but one belonged to home educating groups. There was no attempt to measure in any structured way the attainments or achievements of these people's children; the book is more an exploration of a philosophy and an answer to the question, "Could informal learning work and if so how?" The conclusion is that children learn lots of things apart from what they are taught at school and perhaps they learn more about reading and mathematics in this way than some people think. Interesting, but hardly solid evidence for the foundation of a new theory of pedagogy!
Turning now to the large scale research in North America, some of which has involved over twenty thousand home educated students, we run at once into a serious problem. Namely, that we are not comparing like with like. In other words, what is happening in the USA is not really comparable to what is happening in the UK and it is misleading to present evidence from America and use it to support any sort of teaching method used here. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as I have already said previously, the motives for American home educators tend to be very different from those in this country. The main reason given by parents in the USA for educating their own children is to give them a better education. In this country it ends to be more of a lifestyle choice, with the main reasons given being to spend more time together as a family and to be able to do as they wish. When children are withdrawn from school this is seldom because they are not felt to be learning enough. Rather it is because they are being bullied or their supposed special needs are not being adequately catered for.
Perhaps the greatest difference in America and this country is the legal situation, which cannot but make a huge difference to how parents go about the business. Even those who describe themselves as "autonomous educators" probably mean something quite different from what is generally meant by the term here. Here is the reason.
Laws relating to home education in the USA vary from state to state. California is among the strictest and actually succeeded in banning home education briefly. Texas, despite a previous attempt to outlaw home education, is widely regarded as the most liberal and welcoming in its approach to home education. Sometimes people move there from other states in order to take advantage of tis liberal policies. Let us look at those "liberal" policies. Any parent home educating in Texas is legally obliged to teach reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and citizenship to their children. It is a legal requirement that these be taught "in a bona fide manner". In other words, no leaving it to the child to decide when she will learn. Half of the states in America also require regular testing of home educated children in order to check on their progress.
It is not hard to see that requirements such as those above would have a very great effect upon the educational standard of home educated children. If one is obliged by law to teach spelling and grammar, then what they call autonomous education must surely be a little different from what we mean by the term? Similarly, many parents here claim that regular testing would make autonomous education impossible. So for half the states in the Union, we should presumably disregard any idea of the education being autonomous? This is why we need to treat reports of success in autonomous education from the USA with a certain amount of caution. When we combine this with the fact that at least half of home educating parents there are teaching their children because they think that they can do it better than the schools, we should begin to ask ourselves how much use the statistics there are in telling us anything about home education in the UK
I have said many times before that the only way of assessing home education in this country would be a large scale study involvng at least a thousand or so children whose outcomes were tracked throughout the age of compulsory education and beyond into adulthood. In order to be of any use, this would need to be combined with correlation of the educational methods used on the children. Until such a study is conducted in this country, then the whole question of whether autonomous education is a worthwhile enterprise remains open. That being so, it is quite permissable for any of us to begin statements about the topic with words such as, "I believe..." or "I think....", another thing for which I have been reproached.