You might wonder, following the response from the home ed community after last week’s private member’s bill, why this debate is still rumbling on. This week, the discussion centred on unregistered schools (more of that in next week’s blog) and the problems created for schools having to pick up the pieces when home ed children return to school. The implication is, clearly stated and reinforced by a previous Chair of the Education Select Committee who should know better, that home schoolers don’t provide suitable education.

So what is really going on here?

There is no doubt that recorded figures show a steady rise in home ed over the last decade. Accurate numbers are impossible to obtain, as children who have never been to school don’t necessarily show up on any returns. However, the likely total is around 0.5% of the school-age population.

The reasons for this choice are very varied but include, in generally this order of frequency:

  • dissatisfaction with the school environment
  • lifestyle/cultural or philosophical
  • bullying
  • unmet health or learning needs
  • inability to secure a place at a preferred school
  • testing regime in primary phase
  • near exclusion

And while there’s no doubt that the recorded figures are rising, or possibly even doubling, this is by no means empirical proof that the home ed community has actually doubled in recent years. The 2006 Education and Inspections Act required local authorities to identify children not receiving school education and the law was tightened again last year, requiring all schools (both independent and maintained) to notify the destination of any child leaving the school. So, more systematic record keeping will account for much of the apparent increase.

But there are more ominous factors hidden within the data, particularly for parents of children with special needs – a group of families which has shown a sharp increase in uptake of home ed. According to one head, the academy structure allows schools to subtly manipulate pupil selection to ensure that SEND children won’t be welcome. There is also off the record evidence (anecdotal but growing) of schools wanting difficult pupils removed in order to massage their performance and raise their position in league tables.

Other reasons for the increase are likely to be the growth of high quality online curricula and the availability of group support, all readily discussed on social media. Home ed is no longer a lonely affair or an academic struggle, as you swap the school gate for online and local communities. One commentator even observed a boomerang effect following the Badman Report, as parents became aware of the positive advantages of home ed following the media furore that it provoked. In terms of PR, it was a very spectacular own goal.

So, that answers the charge of doubled numbers. The article also labours on the apparent numbers who remove their pupils because they are at risk of exclusion. Yet the most recent figures available from one of the country’s biggest local authorities shows that just 2 parents gave this as their reason – that represents only 0.25% of home ed children. Hardly statistically valid, and only ten of the 189 councils in England actually mentioned it. Figures aren’t even available for parents removing their children to avoid fines.

According to one council, ideological or religious reasons are no longer the primary reason for home ed. In fact, extant data shows that about 15% of home educators are Christian and about 10% are Muslim, although this may not be the reason, or the sole reason, for opting out of the school system. Bear those figures in mind – and check out next week’s blog to see why they are significant in the ongoing argument.

So, what are we left with? A collection of stats which have been inflated out of proportion, masking the complex and nuanced world that is home education. And, inevitably, because no media article is complete without it these days, there’s the reference to illegal, unregistered schools and the implicit suggestion that home schooling parents harbour nefarious motives.

So, look again at the list at the head of this blog. Does it look like a bunch of feckless parents who can’t be bothered to educate their children properly? Or does it more like a list of caring, loving parents, some of whom make a positive choice and some of whom, driven to desperation by a system which has failed their child, no longer have any choice? To suggest that schools shouldn’t be troubled with picking up the pieces of damage which the system created in the first place insults their care as parents.

For Christian parents, there is an imperative in choosing how to educate their children. Deuteronomy 6: 6-9 says: ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates’ (NIV). In other words, we should raise our children with the word of God as central to our understanding of the world. Psalm 127 also reminds us that ‘children are a heritage from the LORD’ (v3) and it is this understanding of being given the precious gift of a child that motivates parents who choose to home educate. Whether or not they acknowledge God as the source of life, they simply love their children and want the very best for them.

And ‘best’ is for parents, not the state, to decide.