Whenever home educators are trying to prove that their lifestyle is good for children, they invariably quote research by Paula Rothermel or Alan Thomas. The problem comes when you actually read the research, as as opposed to bandying about snippets on the internet. Because one of these authorities, or perhaps both, must be mistaken.
Let us start with Alan Thomas, a respected psychologist who has written key works on the subject of home education. In 1998 his book, "Educating Children at Home" was published. Based upon work with a hundred home educating families, he drew two important conclusions; both of which were enthusiastically received by home educators. Firstly, he suggested that although many parents began by teaching their children formally, most slipped into a more relaxed style, without lessons, timetables or conventional teaching. Secondly, he noticed that the children tended to be late in reading, but that when they did start reading, they rapidly caught up with school educated children. I think that most home educating parents would be inclined to agree with both propositions. In short, he believed that children taught informally often were late in reading, sometimes not doing so until eleven, twelve or even a little later.
Let us now look at Paula Rothermel's much quoted work, which contains the only real evidence that children home educated in the UK perform as well as those at school. At once, we see a problem. Rothermel comes to a completely different conclusion to Thomas. When she looks at the reading ability of young children, from five or six upwards, she finds that far from lagging behind the school children, they are in fact extraordinarily advanced for their age! Actually, her data are absolutely astonishing. Without going into too much detail, the children whom she investigated were given a reading test, (the NLS Assessment). In schools, one would expect 16% of children to reach the top band. Among the home educated children 94% of six year olds managed it. The figures are also extremely high for seven, eight, nine and ten year olds. In other words, rather than being delayed in their reading, according to Rothermel home educated children are fantastically ahead of those educated at school.
Clearly, both Thomas and Rothermel cannot be right about this. Home educated children cannot be both marvellously early readers and also remarkably late ones! I think that most home educators fall into the Thomas camp, believing that their children may learn to read late, but that it does not matter. This does not of course prevent them brandishing Rothermel's figures when debating with non home educators!
So what caused such a difference in findings? Well, to begin with Alan Thomas was already a very well established and experienced psychologist when he undertook his research. Paula Rothermel, on the other hand, was undertaking a thesis for her doctorate. When one looks closely at her work one finds that the literacy tests were not conducted under controlled conditions as they are in schools. She posted them out to parents, who then did them unobserved with their children. Hands up anybody who can imagine a mother leaning over little Johnny's shoulder saying irritably, "Come on, you do know that word! Look, it begins with C."
As far as can be gauged, Rothermel and Thomas carried out their work more or less at the same time, using precisely the same sort of subjects, found mostly via EO and other groups. Any difference in results is likely therefore to be caused by methodology. Because Paula Rothermel's work is the only research undertaken within the UK which supports the notion that the educational progress of home educated children equals or even exceeds that of those educated at school, I shall in the next few days focus on this and see what it might tell us.