There can be no doubt at all that in the decade or so between say 1998 to 2008, the number of children being educated at home in this country rose dramatically. I have seen it suggested that there was an exponential rise in numbers from the time that access to the Internet become common. Some interpreted this steep climb as being evidence that home education in Britain had become an unstoppable force and that the numbers would eventually rival the proportion of children educated in this way in the USA. That this will actually happen, seems less certain now.
Home educating in this country is more like some fashionable and slightly cranky minority interest than a major educational movement. Those who pursue it, and I include myself firmly in this category, tend often to be the same kind of people who oppose the fluoridation of drinking water, think that vaccines cause autism, do not trust GM food and believe that we should rely upon windmills rather than nuclear power stations. There are those who become home educators simply because it is a sound educational choice, but there are many more for whom it presents just one more aspect of an 'alternative' lifestyle. Of course, this is not always the case. There are ordinary parents who have been driven half mad by the bullying to which their child has been subjected at school, or have resorted to home education because the school is not sufficiently catering for their child's special educational needs. Even in these cases though, it is very frequently the cranky parents who sees the solution in home education. Most of the normal ones stick with the school system.
In America, the rise of home education has been massive and steady. Follow the American home education scene on the Internet and you will find a completely different set of concerns from parents in this country. Opposition to the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, does not often appear on the HE-UK list! In Britain, activity on forums and lists waxes and wanes, with various concerns rising and falling. Numbers of children being deregistered from school sometimes soar and at other times drops. This often happens due to the season of the year or depending upon whether home education is being featured a lot in the newspapers. Some local authorities report that the number of home educators registered with them can drop by around a third between September and January.
I have mentioned the importance, as I see it, of having a clutch of good GCSEs at the end of a child's education. I am not alone in viewing the matter in this light; it is increasingly how the average person sees education. This may be due to government propaganda of course, but the fact is that ordinary parents are now convinced that without those formal qualifications, their child's life will be ruined before it has even begun. This is not a view shared by some militant home educators, but it is certainly the common perception. This cannot but have an influence on those parents who are considering the deregistration of their children from school. A recent television series by Jamie Oliver, Jamie's Dream School, begins each episode by restating the educational mantra that these young people failed to gain five 'good' GCSEs and are therefore educational failures. As the years pass, this concept sinks deeper and deeper into the national psyche; successful education equals good GCSEs. I am well aware that this idea is rank anathema for some of those who run home education lists and forums, but they are fighting a losing battle about this.
How will this affect the numbers of home educated children in this country in the future? Very simply. As it becomes more and more accepted as dogma that children without GCSEs are failures, so too will parents be more and more reluctant to take their kids from school lest they miss out on those all-important qualifications. Teachers and local authority officers will only need to demonstrate that children being educated at home are handicapped in gaining GCSEs and this alone will be enough to discourage many parents from trying home education.
I have a suspicion that the rise in numbers of children not at school in this country has slowed and perhaps peaked. This is only a guess of course; there are no hard data. The best way to see if this is so will be to keep extracting the figures from local authorities over the coming years and also to see whether or not Internet support groups are as popular in a couple of years as they are today. I fancy that there has been a decline in use on many lists since Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill was abandoned last year. I would be interested to know what others think about this.