Monday, 21 June 2010

Is home education as effective as schooling?

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.


  1. Research is important, particularly when deciding how to educate a large group of children as in the state system. However, research can be less important or relevant for individual children. Some children cannot learn to read through Look and Say. Some children cannot learn to read using phonics. The amount of research which shows that one method is better than another is irrelevant to these individual children because they are part of the percentage for which that method fails (and no method so far tested seems to be perfect). Research can give useful indications for which method it is worth trying first for an individual family, but that's about it.

    Many HE families have already tried the education method that is considered best in our society by sending their child to school. They already know that this method fails for their child so why would they want or need to see research that compares school with home education? What would motivate them to take part in research? There is a risk (though I agree with you that this is unlikely) that HE might 'fail' such a test even though it is the ideal method for their particular child. What would happen then? Could the state decide that HE should be banned or actively discouraged? Or changed so much that it now fails their child as well? Maybe taking part in research seems too a risky proposition for some families.

    Re. response rates to EO's survey. Consider than many members are only considering HE and have not actually started yet, or have only recently started and do not feel they are experienced enough for it to be worth them taking part in research. I believe EO has a high drop out rate once HE is established so this group may form a disproportionately large portion of their membership.

  2. Good news Simon deep cuts for education spending in UK

    Education spending in England could be cut by as much as 25% over the next four years, the Chancellor has said.

    But George Osborne said in his Budget statement that he recognised the "particular pressures" on the education system.

    Teachers and lecturers also face a two-year pay freeze.

    Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers said the Budget showed that public services would "bear the brunt of the brutal cost cutting".

  3. George Stewart22 June 2010 at 13:35

    After listening to the Budget, you are absolutely mad to think that this Government is going to spend a single pound on either registration or bringing these pupils into state schools.

    The question of new legislation did not vanish with the defeat of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, instead it vanished today with George Osbornes Budget!!

  4. It doesn't seem a strange reluctance to me, Simon. When I took my son out of school more than seven years ago, we walked away from an educational system that, even then, had fallen behind the reality of how people acquire information and knowledge in the 21st century to the extent that it was taking an hour to teach what any self-motivated individual could learn for themselves at home in five minutes, and we walked away from that to get on with our lives. For my part, this has simply been a continuation of my taking responsibility for overseeing my son's happiness and success. I have not offered my local school or any other school the benefit of my opinion on what should or shouldn't be happening in its classrooms, even though I'm highly critical of much of what does happen. That courtesy has been reciprocated. As I would expect it to be.