In 1998, when she had been studying for two years at Durham University, Paula Rothermel conducted some research into home education. The results of that research have been quoted endlessly ever since by home educators, including the present author. In Deborah Durbin's book, Teach Yourself Home Education, is the standard account of this work, written in collaboration with Rothermel herself. Rothermel says that she was "overwhelmed with over a thousand responses, of which a smaller sample were analyzed". Elsewhere in the book it is mentioned that she questioned four hundred and nineteen home educating families. However, the important facts, the PIPS baseline assessments and the literacy tests were in fact restricted to fewer than fifty children, a very small number indeed. The actual figures are thirty five PIPS baselines assessments and five literacy tests administered by Rothermel. Another forty four literacy tests were conducted by the children's parents.
It is important to bear in mind when claiming that, "Paula Rothermel's research has shown", or proved or demonstrated, that we are usually talking about these same thirty five children and that this all took place eleven years ago. It is also perhaps worth bearing in mind that this work was carried out not by a professor but by a second year student. True, questions were asked of another four hundred or so parents via questionnaires. These discovered many things such as that parents found home educating fun and so on, but they do not shed any light on educational attainment. The facts, the meat of the matter, are to be found in those thirty five children.
Of course, the fact that it was a small sample is not in itself reason to disregard the findings of this particular research. I have to say though, that most home educators seem to be under the impression that the research is far more extensive than is actually the case. Most are astounded when told that the claims about academic achievement mostly boil down to these same thirty five children. Compared with work in the USA which looked at the academic achievement of over twenty thousand home educated children, this really is a tiny sample from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. We must also remember that all these children were under eleven, making the sample even more restricted. We must finally keep in mind that it was a self selected sample, limited to those who chose to become involved in the first place.
An awful lot of the home educating dogma in Britain today is founded upon this one sample. We routinely see that, "Paula Rothermel showed that working class parents make good home educators" or that "Paula Rothermel proved that home educated children do better than children at school." The next time you read such an extravagant claim, remember that it is almost certainly based upon one tiny, self selected sample from over a decade ago.