A short while ago I was trying very hard to track down the sources for the various estimates for the number of home educating families in this country. These estimates vary greatly, as I am sure readers are aware. I wished to be accurate because the book of mine on this subject which is due to be published later this year is an academic work. This means that I can't simply make the sort of sweeping claims and wild statements that I regularly make here; everything has to be referenced. If I say that twenty thousand children are being educated at home, I must give my source for this information, for example (Hopwood et al 2007) or (Fortune-Wood 2005). Then at the end, I give details of the source so that others might check up for themselves later.
I found a couple of interesting things while I was tracking down the figures. One of the things was that people simply invent numbers and then the next person to come along quotes those guesses and references the first person's guess as though it were a piece of proper research. The result is that there is absolutely no reliable estimate of the true numbers of home educated children; just people quoting each other's guesswork. This will come as no surprise to most people. I did find a few curious things though. I was taken to task yesterday for supposedly belittling Paula Rothermel's research and suggesting that she didn't know what she was up to. A couple of people told me plainly that Paula knows more about statistics than I do and that compared with her I was a bit of a dunderhead, or words to that effect. A harsh accusation indeed! Well, let's see. One of the figures that I was very dismissive about was of course the idea that there might be over half a million children not at school. Why was I so scathing about this? I shall explain and in the process show why other academics do not take Paula Rothermel's work at all seriously. This is also why Graham Badman ignored it during his review. Follow carefully and you will see why people don't get excited about Paula Rothermel's claims about home education.
The figure of over half a million children not at school comes from a piece which Rothermel wrote in 2000. It is an apparently academic article, properly referenced. She said:
Moreover, there may be as many as 50,000 children educated outside school (ACE 1999). Combine this with the data that in 1997/98 there were 9,144,000 children aged 5-16 in the population, but only 8,583,400 registered in schools (DfEE 1999c). Where were the other 560,600?
Looks very professional and academic at first sight. Let's look a little closer. Observe the reference for the number of children educated outside school; (ACE 1999). I looked up this reference at the end of the piece and it says:
ACE (1999) Home education: a critical evaluation. ACE Bulletin. Advisory Centre for Education, No. 89, June.
This is promising. Perhaps I will find a source for the figure of up to 50,000 children being taught out of school! I tracked down this source and the opening paragraph says:
Home education: a critical evaluation
Advisory Centre for Education ACE: June 1999 No. 89
Over 50,000 British families are estimated to be educating their children at home. What do we know about home-education? Can ideas be generated that have relevance to education of children generally? Paula Rothermel, of the University of Durham, aims to answer these questions among many others. Her three year study of home-education, involving 1000 families, will be published early in the year 2000. Here ACE describes some of the study's preliminary findings.
Straight away, we have a problem. In the original article, Rothermel says that, 'there may be as many as 50,000 children educated outside school ' In other words, 50,000 children or fewer. The reference leads us to a source which says that, 'Over 50,000 British families are estimated to be educating their children at home.' In other words more than 50,000 children. The two statements are contradictory. Her reference does not back up her statement in the original article. There's more though.
This article is about Paula Rothermel's own research. There is nothing here to substantiate the figure of 50,000; as far as one can tell it is no more than a wild guess. In other words, she has tried to back up one unsubstantiated statement by giving as a source another unsubstantiated statement. Trust me, this is not how one does things in the academic world! The best is yet to come. Although the referenced article refers to Rothermel in the third person as though it is an objective account of her work and it says that ACE describes her work, at the bottom we find, "©P. Rothermel 1998". She actually wrote the thing herself. She has referenced her own work and tried to conceal the fact by giving the name of a magazine and failing to mention that it is an article written by her. Sharp practice indeed!
And just in case anybody has had trouble following all this, let me remind you that we are no nearer to finding out why she thinks that there are more than or fewer than fifty thousand home educated children in this country. Where does she get the number fifty thousand from in the first place? Perhaps now readers will realise why I don't take the rest of her guesswork too seriously. She may be an academic with a grasp of statistics and demographics, but she provides little evidence for it in this sort of work. To be fair, she is not alone. Every single estimate I looked at for the number of home educated children did precisely the same thing, just repeated previous guesses. And the source for the claim of over half a million children out of school? In the article this is given as; (DfEE 1999c). Will this lead us to some statistics which we can examine? No, the reference is in fact to a telephone conversation which Paula Rothermel says she had with an unnamed official in the civil service on an unknown day eleven years ago. No way of checking that figure either! Need I say more?