I was a little irritated to hear Graham Badman on the radio yesterday, talking about home education. He said that local authorities know of twenty thousand children who are being home educated, but that "there are at least another twenty thousand known about who are not within their purview". This strikes me as nonsense. With one or two exceptions, when local authorities hear of children who are not at school, they contact them and at the very least want a few details. I do not believe for a moment that local authorities "know" about another twenty thousand. They might suspect or have reason to suppose; they certainly don't "know". So how many children in total are being taught at home? (What sort of person uses words like purview, anyway? Answer, a teacher.)
York Consulting were charged with investigating the feasibility of counting the number of home educated children in Britain. They concluded that it was simply not possible to do this. Which means that all we are left with are various guesses and estimates. The problem is of course that different groups have their own reason for exaggerating or underestimating the numbers of home educated children. Some groups, home educators for example, on some occasions try and make the number high and on others reduce it as much as possible. Let's have a look at a few of these estimates and see what we can make of them.
Ten years ago, home educators felt that it was in their best interests to make the numbers of home educated children seem very great. Perhaps they thought that if they were seen as an unstoppable mass movement, it would have the effect of discouraging local authorities from giving them a hard time. It was a tactical error. Governments sometimes ignore a handful of cranks, but if they think that hundreds of thousands of people are undertaking some strange activity and perhaps flouting the law, they feel bound to take action. Perhaps the highest figure ever suggested for the number of children not at school was that calculated by Paula Rothermel ten years ago. She wrote that, " in 1997/98 there were 9,144,000 children aged 5-16 in the population, but only 8,583,400 registered in schools Where were the other 560,600?" In other words, she was hinting that over 5% of the children aged between five and sixteen were missing from school. A few years later in 2003, an article in the Times educational Supplement, the back pedalling had begun. the numbers were going down! "87,000 children, with some experts claiming numbers nearer to 200,000 if the children of Travellers are included". Most estimated today are much more modest than this. The problem is, as I mentioned above, that people have good reasons for lying about this subject and altering their guesses according to what they wish to prove. For instance, in the Impact assessment published with the Children, Schools and Families Bill, the DCSF were very keen to dismiss the idea that there could be eighty thousand home educated children in total. Why? Purely and simply because they wished to make the estimated cost of their schemes for monitoring as low as they possibly could. Home educators on the other hand have at times wished to portray home education as a mass movement with many scores of thousands of children involved. At other times, they wish to reduce the numbers in order to persuade the government that so few are involved that it is not worth bothering about. The fact is, everybody has motives for being deceitful about this matter.
So what do we actually know? We can be fairly sure that around twenty thousand home educated children are known to local authorities. This is the irreducible minimum number. It is also common knowledge that some home educated children are not registered with their local authorities, those who are, as it is sometimes called, "under the radar". The $64,000 dollar question is, how many more of these unknown children are there? Some home educating parents who are associated with groups, claim that half the children they see are not known to their local authority. If true, this would double the total number of children and give us around forty thousand for the whole country. We must be a little cautious about taking this as being an objective estimate though. After all, a few years ago many home educators were saying that there were far more than this. It is entirely possible that the current guesses are being kept deliberately low for some reason. I have looked at the motive for the DCSF to keep the numbers low, I rather think that home educators feel pretty much the same way.
Of course ultimately, we have not a clue. There are many, many families who have no contact at all either with their local authority or other home educating parents. Nobody has a clue how many children in the Gypsy/Roma community are not attending school, nor does anybody particularly want to know. Poking about there is more trouble than it's worth. As ContactPoint becomes live, we shall probably begin to have some idea about this, but until then all we can really do is guess!