When we are looking at any educational technique, whether it is open-plan classrooms or kinaesthetic learning, the first question to ask is, 'Does it work?' Or at least, does it work for most of the children with whom it is used? The next question to ask is, 'What, if any, are the disadvantages?' So we might perhaps ask ourselves, is it expensive? Are some children harmed by it? These questions remain the same, regardless of what we think personally about the method under consideration. When traditional classrooms with all the desks facing the front were scrapped in the early seventies, some older teachers inveighed against the, as they saw it, trendy nonsense. This is quite the wrong attitude. Whether a new idea offends our sensibilities has no more to do with the case than the flowers that bloom in the spring. The important question is, does it work?
How will we know if some system of education works? It is of course not enough for a few people to say, 'I know it works, look at my kid.' Any system used with a large number of children is bound to have some successes and some failures. In order to see whether or not it is an improvement on what we are already doing, we need to look at lots of children and see how they are doing with the new methods and then compare them with lots of children who are using the old system. This is how we found out that something like the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which seemed at first sight to be a really, really good idea, was actually a really, really bad idea.
It is claimed by those who follow this system, that home education is actually an improvement on schooling and that children learn better at home than they do at school. This is a startling idea, that all those highly trained professionals in specially built institutions are surplus to requirements and that in fact untrained parents can do a better job by themselves. Still, let's be open minded about it. Let's look at the evidence and reserve judgement until we have done so. It is now that we run into a serious problem, a problem which both Ofsted and the Department for Education are trying to find a way round. Because the evidence so far is very sparse and contradictory. True, there is quite a lot of research from the United States, but we must treat this with caution because the motives of home educators in America may be very different from those in this country.
The greatest difficulty we face when trying to assess home education in this country objectively is that home educators by and large do not seem to want to answer questions about what they are doing. In 2003, for example, Education Otherwise sent a survey to all its members, asking about their motivations and various other things, trying to put together a picture of home education in this country. 80% of those who received the questionnaire did not want to answer. The same thing happened when Paula Rothermel sent out two and a half thousand questionnaires in February 1997. Again, 80% of parents did not wish to discuss what they were doing. York Consulting found exactly the same problem in 2006. The result is that we actually know very little about how effective home education is in any respect. I am of course not talking just about how many children are passing five GCSEs at grades A*-C, the government's favourite benchmark. I am also thinking of such things as physical and mental health, employment and things like that. We know how what percentage of twenty five year olds have mental health problems of various kinds, we know about employment levels, all sorts of things in fact. Because nearly everybody has been to school, this gives us a baseline for how schooled adults are doing. What we cannot do currently is see how those who have been home educated compare on these measures. Are they more stable mentally or less? More likely to be in employment, less likely or about the same? What percentage go on to higher education? It is only by examining data like these that we can be sure that home education is at least as good for young people as school. It might of course be a lot better. On the other hand, it might be associated with increased health problems, mental illness, drug and alcohol use, high unemployment; things like that.
Unfortunately, whenever somebody tries to find out about this sort of thing, there is an uproar. Remember the boycott some tried to start of the Ofsted work last year? The fuss about the DfE's pilot for the longitudinal research? Of course, these people are the enemy, it is understandable that parents would be reluctant to trust them. However, as we have seen, precisely the same thing happens when Education Otherwise asks questions.
I happen to believe that home education can be at least as effective as an education delivered by a school. Of course I believe that; otherwise I would have sent my daughter to school! There is though a good deal of scepticism among some teachers, local authority officers, social workers and staff in the Department for Education about the benefits of this type of education. The question of new legislation did not vanish with the defeat of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, as has been seen from the recent Ofsted report. All it would take would be a single death of a home educated child in unfortunates circumstances to bring the matter to mind and precipitate a hasty and ill judged new law. It is therefore in the interests of all home educating parents to demonstrate that what they are doing is an effective and worthwhile alternative to school. The strange reluctance to allow outsiders to see what they are doing must end.