Guessing how many children in the United Kingdom are educated at home by their parents has for the last couple of decades been a popular pastime with home educators. Unfortunately new legislation, possibly combined with data from Contactpoint, is about to signal the end for this much loved parlour game.
Estimates for the number of home educated children in the UK range from a modest twenty thousand to the frankly unbelievable figure of over half a million, of which more later. Because nobody has any idea of the true figures, estimates tend inevitably to be based more upon the prejudices and political interests of those making the guesses, rather than being founded in objective reality. Everybody playing this game in effect plucks a number out of thin air, then doubles, trebles or quadruples it and adds the date or time of day. What motivates people to exaggerate or underestimate numbers of home educated children in this way?
A few years ago, the trend among home educators was to suggest that the number of children being educated at home was well over a hundred thousand. Small, special interest groups often pretend to have more members than is actually the case; inflating the figures in this way makes them feel bigger and more important. Perhaps the most remarkable of these high estimates was that arrived at by Paula Rothermel, when she claimed to have discovered that over half a million children in this country, (560,600 to be exact), were not registered at a school.
It become clear after a while that home educators were likely to be shooting themselves in the foot by these wild exaggerations. After all, if hundreds of thousands of children were really not being taught in schools then the government would feel duty bound to do something about it. Home educating groups began frantically back-pedalling, soon getting the numbers below the fifty thousand mark. A fringe activity, hardly worth the government's attention!
In 2007, York Consulting released the findings of an investigation financed by the DCSF. Their concusions broadly agreed with those in Graham Badman's report. Somewhere in the region of twenty thousand home educated children were known to local authorities. There were perhaps double that number unknown to the authorities. Interestingly, Graham Badman's suggested upper limit for the number of children, eighty thousand, has been attacked by some home educators as being a gross exaggeration. It is still only a seventh of the five hundred and sixty thousand hinted at by Rothermel in 2000 and still featured on some websites. It just shows how times change.