Ignorance and stigma surrounding home education risks ushering-in unnecessary new checks on families - without the evidence to support them.
That’s the view of Dr Harriet Pattison, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at Liverpool Hope University who’s researched and written extensively about home education.
Last week saw the first phase of a new Government consultation on home education draw to a close, with the results to be published in due course.
The Education Committee inquiry will examine whether there needs to be a national register for home educated children, whether homes need to be inspected just like schools are, whether there needs to be increased monitoring, and if there are safeguarding issues.
But Dr Pattison is worried that any policy changes would be knee-jerk - simply because home education is still so misunderstood by policy makers, local authorities and the public in general.
She warns: “Home education is perfectly legal and becoming increasingly popular. Yet there is an almost continual cycle of reviews and consultations that signify a political unease based on concerns about safeguarding, radicalisation and educational underachievement.
“The proposed solution is always increased monitoring, registration and inspection.
“From a policy point of view these arguments play into the bigger picture of increasing state intervention over childhood, but they are not evidence based. There is widespread ignorance and misinformation about home education and a lack of political will to listen to or support research in this area.
“All too often, home education is equated with ‘school at home’ without any proper understanding of how different it is to educate a child in this way.”
The law as it stands says parents are responsible for their children’s education, either through regular attendance at school or otherwise.
Which means any parent is free to educate their child from home, with increasing numbers doing so.
Although there’s no official tally, estimates of home educated children in the UK range from between 80,000 to 100,000.
Earlier this year the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) data revealed local authorities reported 60,544 children as being home educated in March 2019, compared to 52,770 in March 2018.
There’s also thought to be a spike in numbers when children reach the age they transition from primary to secondary school.
Dr Pattison argues the situation offers a perfect opportunity for local authorities to work with families who are ‘deeply committed to their children and their children’s education in supportive and helpful ways’.
Yet the academic, co-author of the 2008 book How Children Learn at Home and also 2016’s Rethinking Learning to Read, says home education still attracts a stigma it rarely deserves.
She points to how Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, expressed her concerns in a Channel Four Dispatches documentary last year describing home educated children as “off the grid” and “invisible”.
One tragic case often mentioned when talking about home education is that of seven year old Khyra Ishaq, who was withdrawn from school and subsequently starved to death by her mother and mother’s partner in Handsworth, Birmingham, in May 2008.
After a Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board published a Serious Case Review into the death, then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families Ed Balls made the case for imposing regulation on home educating families.
Yet for Dr Pattison, Trustee of The Centre of Personalised Education, that argument is flawed.
She explains: “A lot of the objections about home education rest on risk - the idea that children could be abused, or radicalised.
“Yet this argument is based on the notion of risk rather than actual evidence.
“Evaluation of the evidence actually shows that home educated children are at less risk than children in school. Analysis of Child Protection Plans show that rates among home educated children are far lower than in the general population.
“Furthermore, analysis of serious case reviews in which home education has been cited as a factor reveals that in every case the child concerned was already known to professionals and that safeguarding action could have been, but was not, taken.”
There are other problems, too.
While Covid-19 related school closures have brought the idea of home education into focus, emergency pandemic schooling by parents at home should never be confused with pre-planned and well-executed ‘home education’.
Dr Pattison says: “The pandemic has prompted some really problematic conversations about what counts as ‘home schooling’. A very misleading picture of home education is going to emerge if what has happened with the pandemic school closures and parents trying to keep education going through the lockdown is equated with home education in general.
“It is a completely different situation where parents have had a greater chance to think through their child’s needs and their own educational philosophies, to talk to others, to find support and gather their resources.
“Even where families have not so much chosen to home educate but feel that the situation in school has been so wrong for their child that they have had no choice but to withdraw them, this should not be confused with pandemic schooling.
“Having said that, some families have found that the pandemic has actually solidified their plan to home educate. Families are saying, ‘Now the child has had a taste of not having to go to school, we can’t start that up again’.”
Dr Pattison also argues that home educators are resourceful people who care deeply about their children and about education.
She adds: “Home education offers them a flexibility and freedom to tailor education to their child, to play to their strengths, engage their interest and to harness their motivation.
“My research on learning to read at home revealed myriad routes into reading and the ability of families and children to be creative, imaginative, flexible, and to have fun.
“Learning to read was often very different for home educated children but very successful too. In the classroom, those options don’t exist. Schooling is, in general, pretty monolithic. If you’re not learning to read in the classroom, often the only option is more of the same. More intense, but more of the same.
“School is a standardised approach but it doesn’t churn out a standardised product.
“Home education is really able to offer an education that suits that particular child at that particular time in his or her life; it is able to celebrate uniqueness.
“My research, and that of others, shows home education is viable and successful. Rather than vilify it, we need to learn more about it and more from it.”