I have been interested to note over the last few days that while people have had a good deal to remark about the pilot study being set up by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, not one person has touched upon the real reason for the vehement opposition to this new research. It's the wrong time, it's the wrong people arranging it, we have been vilified and insulted; all more or less decent excuses for avoiding the thing like the plague, but all skirting around the real objection.
Whatever their original motivations, there is no doubt at all that after a few months many home educators in this country continue to keep their children at home for reasons wholly unconnected from education. This was a major finding of both the Education Otherwise survey of its members in 2003 and also Paula Rothermel's work in 1997/1998. Now of course I have in the past had some harsh things to say about Paula Rothemel's research on literacy and so on, but there's no reason to doubt the raw data from the thousand or so questionnaires which she received. Parents cited the benefits of home education in both surveys as closer family relationships, the opportunity to do more things together, a relaxed lifestyle and things like that.
In a sense then, any attempt to study home education in this country will be pointless and irrelevant unless this is taken into account. After all, if you are comparing independent schools with maintained schools in the state sector, you don't generally ask about how the family relationships of the pupils are going, nor as to whether they feel more relaxed in this or that setting. You ask instead about how much PE they're doing, which examinations they have passed, who's learning the piano and stuff like that. And so we arrive, in a pleasant and roundabout way, at the heart of the problem. Because however good their family relationships and despite the fact that home educated children are supposedly kinder, more altruistic, more compassionate and concerned than children attending school, the fact is that they don't in general take Grade 6 Clarinet or pass GCSE's early, as many schooled children do.
In short, many parents are simply nervous about what such a study would reveal. I have no doubt at all that much of the opposition to serious research on home education is motivated by this fear. After all, it is one thing reading about some home educated kid who goes to Cambridge at fifteen or Oxford at twelve or gets an A level at nine, but most of us don't have children like that. I certainly don't! The awful possibility strikes some parents that if an outsider started to look at her child and test his abilities, then perhaps he would shake his head sadly and say, "Sorry Mrs. Smith, but your Johnny is at least three years behind other children of his age, particularly in reading". In other words, a study might show that academically, many home educated children are not doing as well as those at school. I think this anxiety is very prevalent among autonomous educators and I strongly suspect that this is at the root of many of the objections to participating in any sort of research.
Let's face it, none of us want a complete stranger sitting in judgement over us and our lifestyle! Many home educated children do learn to read and write later than those at school. It is quite possible that, for whatever reason, home educated children don't tend to take eleven or twelve GCSE's when they are fifteen. I am regarded by many as a fanatical "school at home" type and I can assure readers right now that it never for a moment crossed my mind to enter my daughter for eleven GCSE's! So the first result of any sort of study might be to reveal that home educated children are not doing as well academically as those at school, at least as far as the yardsticks used in schools are concerned.
Of course, there may well be another yardstick entirely by which home education should be measured; one which does not depend upon GCSE results and access to higher education. if so, then it is high time for home educators to share these benchmarks with those who are about to start investigating home education. Because otherwise, the end product of such a study is likely to be a set of graphs and statistics which demonstrate infallibly that home education is often absolutely useless compared with school and that many home educated children would benefit from returning to school as promptly as possible.