Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The lack of properly conducted research on home education

Regular readers of this Blog will be aware that I frequently bemoan the fact that there is no properly conducted research on home education in this country. That which has been undertaken is either lamentably poor in construction, like that of Paula Rothermel or centres around grotesquely small, self-selected samples, as in the case of Alan Thomas. While re-reading Thomas’ books recently, it occurred to me that what I would describe as ’proper’ research never will be carried out on home educating families. It might be literally impossible.

When one has millions of children all being taught in very similar ways to learn roughly the same things, as is the case with the maintained sector in Britain, then one only needs to take a couple of hundred pupils at random to get a flavour of the process. Two hundred kids drawn at random from a variety of schools in one part of the country are likely to be pretty much the same in their attainments and knowledge as a couple of hundred drawn from elsewhere. This is not at all the case with home educated children. In the group of children from state schools, most will be of broadly similar achievement. There will be outliers; children who are doing very much better or a good deal worse than average, but these will be exceptions and will not skew the overall picture. The problem is with home education is that any sample group is likely to consist of nothing but outliers!

For instance there are quite a number of home educating parents like me; slave drivers who expect their kids to be reading at two and to have mastered calculus by the age of eleven. (Both perfectly true, I regret to say). There are also those whose children are unable to read at twelve and can barely write their own name at fourteen. Both these types of children would be very much the exception in state schools. There would be few of them and one could disregard their achievements as being wildly atypical. In the crazy world of home education though, these children are not so much rarities as archetypes! In other words, whereas in an average school one would have look hard for a child able to read at two, it is not at all uncommon among a certain type of home educator. In the same way, a boy who cannot read at twelve is unusual in schools but not among home educated children.

The point which I am making here is that because there is no standardised curriculum and indeed in many cases no curriculum at all, it is probably not possible to find a ‘typical’ home educated child. Some such children would, if compared with schooled children, present as being very much advanced. Others would appear to be far behind, at least when compared to children of the same age at school. What we lack and are never likely to have, is a reference group of average home educated children with whom other home educated children may be compared. Such a group almost certainly does not exist.


  1. Don't forget that the same child can be 'very much advanced' in one area and 'far behind' in another. Both mine had strong starts in English, but lagged behind in Maths, which probably reflected my own strengths and confidences.

    Both caught up later though.

  2. 'There would be few of them and one could disregard their achievements as being wildly atypical.'

    Mmmm...not sure about that. When I taught in the secondary sector, in London boroughs, our intake of 120 children from primary schools usually had at least 10% who had reading ages of 5 years or less.

    Admittedly, primary teaching of reading has improved since then, but I'm still not sure that the figures would be terribly different. Do you have stats?

  3. I think you're over estimating the number of late readers. We have a couple of late readers so it's something I've taken note of at the various meetings and camps we've attended over the years. If anything, the 1 in 5 figure for late readers seems inflated in my experience.

  4. I would query your assumption that achievement is likely to be broadly similar across different areas in state school areas. Looking at school league tables clearly shows the difference between urban, rural and inner city.

    Parental input seems to be the one key feature, because throwing money at the problem certainly hasn't worked, and I suspect that that goes for any form of education. An interested involved and bloody-minded parent who is prepared to either fight or abandon the system will usually end up with a better educated child than one who either views schools as babysitting or HE a convenient shield to hide behind to avoid prosecution. (Which the overwhelming majority of people DO NOT DO.)

    There again, I'd question whether the word 'parent' applied to those people. Maybe biological progenitor would work better, because parent to me is a verb as well as a noun.

    Also, looking at the literacy statistics leaves me not too sure about your assumption that a 12 year old boy who cannot read and a 14 year old boy who cannot write would be unusual in a school situation. I think I'd want to know what you mean by 'cannot read and write' and you can't make a valid comparison between school and HE until there's an agreement about what exactly that means. Even then, I don't see how you'd get impartial recording because schools have been known to be every bit as optimistic about their pupils achievements as parents, if not more so when their places in league tables are at stake.

    Sorry to be so pedantic, but an earlier life a a statistician has left scars behind.

  5. Why do you think it's important to have 'properly conducted research'?

  6. In my experience I found very little "rich" research. Some, as you say, with a very little sample. That would not be a drama if they would give in depth interpretation. Commonly I found a poor discussion of a few data. THAT, in my opinion, is not research, it just a half inch ocean of nothingness.
    I would prefer papers center on research paradigm shift that could give me an in-depth comprehension of the phenomena. I'm thinking on research in which the focus is ethnography, critical discourse analysis or any other qualitative method. There are serious and rigorous researches that don’t need big samples and have a very hard core in social sciences and really make knowledge to move "forward".