Friday, 3 August 2012
The research shows…
No real research has been undertaken on home education in this country. That being so, those who defend the practice are compelled to fall back on some pretty feeble work and hope that nobody will notice how shoddy it is. When a couple of months ago Janine Ainsworth, Chief Education Officer of the Church of England, said that home education was not a good idea, Mike Fortune-Wood was quick to leap in with what he thought was some evidence which discredited Ms Ainsworth’s view. See;
As usual, Mike Fortune-Wood’s statement contained some unintentionally hilarious passages. When he said, for example, that, ‘Practically all Home educated children take an active roll in their local communities.’, I don’t think that he was really suggesting that they tumble head over heels down hills, like so many Jack and Jills! Perhaps ‘role’ might have been a more felicitous choice of words. He went on to say, 'Home educated children have been shown to be highly social, balanced and to mix well with other children and adults. (Paula Rothermel’s work).' Which brings us neatly to the subject of feeble work and shoddy research.
It is astonishing how many people still trot out Paula Rothermel’s findings, under the apparent impression that they tell us anything useful about home education in this country. Let us see what they tell us about how social and balanced home educated British children are.
Reading about Paula Rothermel’s work, one often comes across large numbers. Thousands of questionnaires sent out, over four hundred families interviewed in depth; that sort of thing. The truth is a somewhat different. In February 1997, Rothermel sent out 2500 questionnaires to members of education Otherwise. A year later, she sent out a similar number, again only to members of Education Otherwise. Two hundred were also sent to religious groups and local authorities. A thousand were returned, of which four hundred and nineteen were chosen for further research. Already, we have run into a several serious problems.
The first difficulty is that this was a self-selected group, almost entirely from one organisation. (Twenty four out of twenty five of the questionnaires were sent only to members of Education Otherwise). Only a fifth of those asked, wished to take part by answering any questions. These are likely to be those whose home education was going well and who wished to tell others of it. In addition to this, they were people with high degrees of ‘document literacy’; those probably of a higher educational level than average. This is also suggested by the fact that a quarter of them were, or had been, school teachers. The final point to consider is that this was all fifteen years ago.
To sum up, the sample group of children tested fifteen years ago were self-selected members of a single organisation, whose educational standards were probably higher than average. Still, testing over four hundred children, even from an atypical group like this might still tell us something about home educated children. We now encounter two more difficulties which render the findings from this research project pretty well useless. The tests relating to social skills and the ability to get on with others were not administered to hundreds of children; not even a hundred children, nor even fifty. In fact the crucial tests about the ability of the children to get on with others and behave in a socialised way were only given to groups of twenty children. Not only that, but the parents did the tests, answering questions about their own children.
Here is one of the three tests used by Rothermel on twenty children:
Click on the one marked P4-16 to see it. Has anybody seen the problem with handing a parent a form of this sort and asking her to answer the questions about her own child? I wonder how many parents will admit that their own child often lies and cheats? Or whether the average parent is objective enough to admit that her son often fights with other children and bullies them? Parents are the worst possible people to ask about this sort of thing! We all stick up for our kids and gloss over their faults, even to ourselves. Nobody will get an objective assessment of my daughter from me and I suspect that other parents are the same. A much more reliable way of establishing this sort of thing is for teachers and nursery workers to fill out these forms based upon their observations of children.
As I say, this really important test, which has led many to make such extravagant claims about what research has shown about home educated children in this country, was given to only twenty children. The answers were all those given only by the children’s mothers or fathers. When people like Mike Fortune-Wood say things like the quotation above about research showing that home educated children are highly social, well balanced and mix well with other children, what they are really saying is this; ‘Fifteen years ago twenty parents of home educated children claimed that their children were sociable and well balanced’. That is it, the whole of the evidence for this often repeated assertion.