The metaphor of looking for a needle in a haystack is one often used by home educators when talking of some new initiative such as ContactPoint or Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill. The claim is made that searching for abuse or other hazards is like looking for a needle in a haystack and that building a bigger haystack makes the job more difficult. In addition to generating more false positives, there will be an increased risk of overlooking genuine cases. It's an interesting idea, even if it does not stand up to scrutiny.
The specific accusation made is that home educated children are actually a normal risk group for things such as abuse, injuries and so on and that it is ridiculous to focus on them as though they were more at hazard than children in school. Before we can look at this idea, we need to see what we mean by these terms. If we count all the children in a large area like a country or even just a county and then see how many of them are abused, then we can work out a normal rate. So if we find that among a group of 10,000 children, twenty are abused in a year, then that would give us a normal rate of 0.2 per 100. If we then found that in a group of a hundred children, six were abused in the course of a year, that would give us a rate which is thirty times higher than average. Something is happening in this group; it is high risk.
Now if home educated children were simply drawn pretty much at random from the general population and the only difference was that instead of attending school they stayed at home with their parents, then of course they would be at the same level of risk as children at school. In the real world, that is not what happens. In fact a fairly high proportion, nobody knows how high, of home educated children come from groups who are themselves at higher risk of some things. Let's look at one or two of those groups.
In some areas, over a third of electively home educated children are of Roma/Gypsy heritage. Often, the teenage boys from this community being taught out of school learn more practical skills. They might be working a lot with horses, cars or machinery, while their contemporaries are sitting in a classroom studying maths. A natural result of this will be that a fifteen year old boy working with vehicles say, will be at greater risk of injury than a child sitting at a desk. Or again, there is probably a higher proportion of children with special educational needs among home educated children than in the general school population. These children too are at higher risk of some things. Illness, for example and sometimes premature death.
When we look at the whole group of electively home educated children, we find that although some of them are just children whose parents have decided to teach them at home because they prefer it to school, quite a few belong to various higher risk groups. This has the effect of pushing up the overall rate of risk for all children in the overarching group of electively home educated children. Just how much more they are at risk is a matter of debate; they are certainly not just a normal risk group. This means that by focusing resources more upon them than upon the general school population, we are actually creating a smaller rather than a larger haystack. The danger would lie in pretending that this was not so and that we should simply assume that all children aged between five and sixteen were equally at risk of abuse, illness, injury and death. We have a precedent for this kind of thing.
When HIV/AIDS appeared in the eighties, the government in this country was very keen to pretend that everybody was at the same risk of catching the disease. Leaflets were distributed to every household and we all had to believe that nobody was at any greater risk than anybody else. Of course it was nonsense. In fact injecting drugs or having unprotected sex with gay men or people from Sub-Saharan Africa are far more likely to give you AIDS than most activities. So it is with harm to children. This is seldom acknowledged explicitly, because it sounds so awful. Imagine a Minister giving a speech in which he told us that AIDS was being spread by junkies, foreigners and practicing sodomites! It will not be happening any time soon.
All children are not at equal risk. Some groups of children, stepchildren for example, are at very high risk of being raped, abused, neglected or murdered. Children from some areas are more likely to contract certain diseases. Some backgrounds are more common in neglected children than others.
So we see that simply because the category of home educated children contains a disproportionate number of children from higher risk groups, this means that it is worth paying a little more attention to children at home than we do to those at school. Some people suggest that the experience of New Zealand, where home educated children are no longer routinely monitored, is instructive. Not really. Without knowing the motives of New Zealanders for home educating, the ethnicity, proportion of children with special needs and so on, it is impossible to know whether, as in Britain, home educated children there are at a higher risk.
And so we come to the present situation. Graham Badman and Ed Balls are not stupid. they know perfectly well that the children of the sort of people who visit this Blog or hang around on the EO or HE-UK lists are at no more risk of anything than children at school. The problem is very similar to the difficulty we saw above with AIDS, of explaining who are the real risk categories, the people we really need to be concentrating on. Let's try and draft a speech for the Minister in which he tells the truth about home education;
"In a dramatic U turn yesterday, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced that he had scrapped plans to monitor home education among respectable, middle class families. Instead, greater attention would be paid to Gypsies, disabled children and poor quality, working class families on housing estates."
I don't think that Ed Balls is ready to make such a speech just yet. In short, a child who is not sent to school by his parents just because they wish to teach her at home is not at any increased risk of anything. However, because in the whole group of home educated children there are a quite a few children from high risk groups, more attention is being directed to home educated children in general.