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Home-Education: Aims, Practices and Outcomes

Paula Rothermel
University of Durham, 2002

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002


This research explores the aims and practices of home-educating families from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. The methodology involves a questionnaire survey completed by 419 home-educating families and 196 assessments evaluating the psychosocial and academic development of home-educated children aged eleven years and under. The aim was to gain an understanding of children's education outside school. This is the first UK study involving home-educated children and their families, using diverse methodologies, broad aims and large sample.

The results show that 64% of the home-educated Reception aged children scored over 75% on their PIPS Baseline Assessments as opposed to 5.1% of children nationally. The National Literacy Project assessment results reveal that 80.4% of the home-educated children scored within the top 16% band (of a normal distribution bell curve), whilst 77.4% of the PIPS Year 2 home-educated cohort scored similarly. Results from the psychosocial instruments confirm the home-educated children were socially adept and without behavioural problems.

The home-educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills. Common to all families involved was their flexible approach to education and the high level of parental attention received by the children. Children benefited from the freedom to develop their skills at their own speed. Home-educating parents fulfilled two separate 'professional' roles - as parents and educators. Further, in the light of these results, the concept of 'taking responsibility' and home-educating, rather than accepting state provision challenges us to consider how far we should go in accepting the 'informed wisdom' of the school norm.


Legality of Home-education

It is legal in the United Kingdom for a child to be home-educated.

Section 7 of The Education Act 1996 (England and Wales) reads as follows:

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable:

(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

Section 7 of The Education Act 1996 (England and Wales)

Whilst the school option involves formal assessment and inspection, the 'otherwise' alternative involves neither in any legislative form.

'LEAs, however, have no automatic right of access to the parent's home. Parents may refuse a meeting in the home, if they can offer an alternative way of demonstrating that they are providing a suitable education, for example, through showing examples of work and agreeing to a meeting at another venue.'

DfEE (1998a, point 4)

It is not within the remit of LEAs to 'authorise' home-education. The choice lies very firmly with the parents.

To home-educate children in the UK, one does not need a teaching qualification nor any specialist equipment and whilst some families follow a routine for learning, others do not. There are families known to their LEA as home-educators and there are others that are not (Muckle 1997). Currently, families home-educating children in England and Wales who have never been to school, are under no obligation to inform anyone. The law states that the name of a child at school and who is of compulsory school age is to be removed from the school register, if:

'he has ceased to attend the school and the proprietor has received written notification from the parent that the pupil is receiving education otherwise than at school.'

Regulation 9 (1) (c) Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 1995
(England and Wales)

Thus, to deregister a child the parent needs only to inform the proprietor or headteacher that they are withdrawing their child from school for education otherwise than at school. The school then has a legal obligation, according to Regulation 13 (3) of the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 1995, to inform the local authority of any child that is withdrawing and provide the reason, insofar as they are aware of it.

In Scotland the law in respect of withdrawal differs: under section 35(1) of The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 the education authority must:

[...] have consented to the withdrawal of the child from the school (which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld) [...]

The Education (Scotland) Act 1980, s. 35(1)

Definitions of Home-education

There is no simple definition of home-education. Some LEAs might, for example, define home-educating families only as those known to, and approved by, the LEA: many families however, are, quite legally, not known to their LEA (Muckle 1997).

Asking someone to define home-education is very difficult. It is not an education that happens at home because so much of it happens outside the home. All that can really be said of it in this respect is that it is an education that does not take place wholly within a school (although many children go into schools for after-school classes) and that is not subject to the regulations, aged-based learning goals and testing regimes that schools involve.

Perhaps it is most appropriately described by a combination of two definitions:

'Home education can be defined as the full-time education of children in and around the home by their parents or guardians or by tutors appointed by the parents or guardians'

Petrie, Windrass, and Thomas (1999, p. 6)


'[home-education is] where the parents are committed to their [children's] education and home-educating'

(Petrie 1999)

Decisions concerning how and where children are educated and of what that education should consist lie ultimately with parents, as detailed in Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1952), adopted through the Human Rights Act 1998 into UK law, 2nd October 2000.

'No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.'

Protocol 1, Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1952)

There are home-educators who neither 'school' nor 'teach' their children, preferring to leave the children free to follow their own inclinations, whether or not that involves any formal learning and whether or not such incidental learning would be determined as 'educational' by schools and LEA inspectors. The right of children to learn autonomously (self-directed learning) was established through the case of Harrison & Harrison v. Stevenson heard at Worcester Crown Court (1981). The judge held that the Harrisons unstructured form of education was satisfactory, holding that a 'suitable education' was one which 'prepares children for life in a modern, civilised society' and an 'efficient education' was one which 'achieves what it set out to achieve'.

Education is compulsory, school is not. The anomaly is that the government, places compulsion upon learning, which is a human instinct.

Prevalence of Home Education

We do not know how many home-educated children there are in the UK because there is no requirement that they be counted. Current estimations tend to be between 25,000 families Freely (20,000) and 150,000 children (Hill 2000).

Previous UK Research

There has been little previous research into home-educators in the UK. Previous studies have been small and have involved questionnaires (Patterson 1995; Brunton 1996; Muckle 1997), or and, interviews (Blacker 1981; Webb 1990, 1999; Petrie 1992; Lowden 1993; Page 1997; Thomas 1998).

Webb (1990) focused on home-educated children above 14 years of age, conducting twenty interviews with twenty families. She found that the two main reasons for home-educating amongst her sample were an interest in alternative education and school based problems; a number of home-educated children in her study had suffered psychologically from previous attendance at several schools, sometimes being labelled as 'maladjusted'. Meighan (1995) supported Webb in this observation. Yet other children, those who had spent part or all of their education outside school, felt they were victims of ostracism by their schooled peers. Many of the parents in Webb's study would have preferred an alternative school such as Steiner, had such a school been accessible to them. Some parents saw home-educating as a compensation for their not being able to pay for private school education. Webb discovered, that eleven of her twenty families had at least one parent who was a teacher: she held that amongst the home-educators generally there would be even more. Webb conjectured that children learning at home experienced true involvement in directing their learning and concluded that more people would home-educate if they knew this to be a legitimate option.

Webb (1999) involved follow-up interviews with twenty adults previously interviewed as children in Webb (1990), with the aim of establishing how such children had developed. None of the young adults was unemployed, three having graduated from Oxford University. Only about 30% of the sample contemplated home-education for their own children; a finding that contrasts with that of Knowles (1991) who found that the 10 adults he interviewed (all themselves homeschooled as children), who had become parents (n=7) had all chosen to homeschool their own children. The grandchildren of one participant were currently being homeschooled, creating a third generation of homeschoolers. Webb, however, explained that many of her sample believed that their parents had made 'sacrifices' that they in turn, would not wish to make. The sample were positive about their home-education, believing themselves to have benefited from the experience. Socially, Webb found, as did Knowles (1991), that the home-educated were at ease with a broad cross-section of the community; she described their social skills as 'often very exceptional', finding too, that the home-grown home-educated sample were independent thinkers.

Page (1997) interviewed twenty Christian families, the majority Catholics, exploring mothers' and fathers' reactions to home-education and the effect on the children of the individual attention received. He perceived the children to be academically competent and found the families to be close, with far more involvement from fathers than might ordinarily be the case had the children been at school.

Thomas (1998) described an investigation of children's informal learning processes. The research used home-education as a vehicle upon which to base theories of children's informal learning that could not be so well tested with schoolchildren. Thomas challenged the view that school age children need to be taught in order to learn. One hundred interviews with home-educating parents in Australia and the UK were conducted with parents describing how they taught their children and how the children learned. Thomas found that over time, most home-educating families adopted less formal learning patterns than those originally initiated. He attributed this change to a manoeuvre by the children, possibly without conscious intent, to orchestrate a learning programme to suit their needs: just as the parents of young babies respond to signals from their infant, home-educating parents were seen to take cues from their children beyond school age and in more advanced learning situations, avoiding the necessity for formal teaching. Thomas hypothesised that on entering school, children lost the art of informal learning, at least to the degree experienced by children who had not been at school. The type of learning that occurred naturally was very different from that of school; the children at home were able to freely follow streams of thought that linked in with everyday life and although this learning style was slow and not always apparent, links were gradually made that showed themselves at a later date. Thomas observed that even in formal home learning, topics of interest were allowed to surface and be discussed that did not necessarily relate to the lesson being addressed at that time. In this way children developed a motivation for independent learning. Thomas did not deny that schoolchildren also learn in this way, but that children might not need to undergo the style of learning normally associated with schools. Thomas concluded that intellectual development, particularly during early years, might happen naturally and incidentally without formal learning and moreover, if such an education was not better than school learning, it was at least equal to it.

Thomas' findings appeared to expound the scaffolding and social constructivist theories of Bruner and Vygotsky. Thomas believed that the natural learning he observed was not happening in isolation but was the result of interactions, some level of intervention being necessary, at least to facilitate the learning that enabled developmental unfolding and maturation (Thomas 1998 pp 71, 129).

Present Study

The above studies have provided useful insights into home-education in the UK. However, they have not explored the families involved either on a nation-wide basis or through a broader perspective. Further, participant numbers involved have been small. The current research seeks to redress this position by using data derived from questionnaires, field-notes, academic tests and psychosocial assessments.


The research took the form of access to the home-educators, a questionnaire survey distributed to them, educational and psychological assessments of home-educated children and interviews with home-educating families. Questionnaires were analysed from 419 respondents (1,099 children) and 238 assessments were conducted. Whilst 100 families were interviewed, the results are not included in this research: analysis of interview data is taking place as part of a follow-up addendum report. However, field-notes from these interviews are referred to because of the qualitative background data that they add to the assessment programme.

Below is an overview of the methodology.

Survey Data:

Educational Data:

Psychological Data:

And part of the overall research design but not included in this thesis: Interview Data: N=100 home-educating families.

This research used a multimethod approach that facilitated the quality and quantity of data necessary in order to gain a comprehensive portrayal of home-education in the UK. It enabled conclusions to be drawn through reference to a multiplicity of sources, methods and theories (Denzin 1989). It was also anticipated that by using different methods, interpretability would be enhanced whilst threats to validity were kept to a minimum (Robson 1993).

As a result of reading several newspaper and magazine articles published during 1996 (Henson 1996; Midgley 1996), evidence of a British home-education movement became increasingly apparent. Reports referred to a national network of home-educators and suggested that the incidence of home-educating families had grown over recent years. A further literature search revealed that Meighan (1995) had presented a case arguing the effectiveness of home-education, while Knox (1988) had raised awareness of school phobia and Holt (1981) reflected a growing apprehension towards the school system. Petrie (1992) and Lowden (1993) documented the tension that existed between home-educators and their Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Almost a year of preliminary investigation prior to 'official' instigation of the present study showed that despite the work of the above mentioned writers, the available research was minimal, particularly in the UK where so little was actually known about home-educators. Access to home-educators was thus made gradually over a two year period, through:

Networking in this way, home-educators became increasingly accessible. Access was nevertheless, a very long process that engendered many hours of research and time spent in establishing trust.



The pattern of home-education, the motivation and the expectation

From the sample about 50% of the home-educated had been home-educated from birth and about 50% had been withdrawn from school. A common pattern was that once a child was withdrawn, subsequent children, either pre-school aged or not yet born would be home-educated from the outset.

About half the currently home-educating families did so because of their poor experience with schools whilst for the other half the decision was connected with family lifestyle.

However, whilst dissatisfaction with school may have been a true motivation for many, this was partnered with a growing sense of choice to the extent that home-education, once initiated, became a lifestyle choice; initial motivations were sidelined as families found other benefits of home-education.

About half the home-educators found home-education not as they expected. It was either more fun, more demanding or both. Nevertheless, few parents made negative comments about home-educating.

National Curriculum

Parents, whether becoming more or less formal over time, adapted to their children's needs. Confident parents tended to shun the national curriculum whilst those who were less confident either followed, or were at least mindful of it.


The most 'formal' work any families undertook lasted no more than 2-3 hours a day. Families did not consider Maths and Science to be problems and once need outstripped family knowledge, children tended to join further education colleges or other formal lessons, ie. online courses. Over half the families said that they made use of 'learning support' in the form of clubs and classes such as football, trampolining, dance, music etc.


Almost half of the respondents (48%) did not assess their children and a further third that did (28%), used only informal assessment such as discussion and observation.

What families valued

The space to develop non academic intelligences was an advantage of home-education. There was also more room for family activities, discussion and spontaneity. Respondents believed that listening to their children, sharing experiences and involving the children in everyday responsibilities contributed to the children's education and growth in a way that school could not.

Isolation within the community

In terms of fellowship, families often felt isolated within their communities although this was not of their choosing. Although some families succumbed to the pressure this involved, for most this was not enough reason to adopt or readopt the school ethos.

Interviews - main points

Alienation for the wider community

Families found they were constantly questioned in the street and their children were asked questions about their maths and reading skills. In the questionnaires, this constant questioning and related feeling of being different was given as the main disadvantaged of home-education. There was however, evidence of increasing acceptance within the community.

Searching for something

Without school 'pegs' upon which to organise days some families felt a little lost. On the questionnaires 19% of families believed their children would suffer if the parents did not find friends for them, although this 'left out' feeling was very much a parental issue and not one echoed by the children. There was a sense of families searching out an ideal that was not home and not school but some midway alternative.

Working to the school year

Many families found themselves working to the school year. Children had friends in school and this mean completing their activities in time to meet with their school friends. Other reasons for this were that, many children were involved with after-school groups, home-educators sometimes used local authority buildings to meet up which closed during school holidays, and finally, home educators made use of swimming pools, museums, libraries etc. during school hours to avoid the crowds.

Change over time

Adapting to child-centred learning

This research found, as had Thomas (1998) that the children were influential in discreetly manoeuvring their learning to suit themselves. Whether families started of formally or less formally in terms of learning patterns, they all adjusted to a style that suited their children. This outcome was usually the converse of what parents expected.


The natural weaning age of humans is said to be between 2.5 and 7 years (Dettwyler 1995) and in this respect home-educators were leading the way in infant health in protecting their children naturally by long term breastfeeding. With mothers at home each day, practices altered. Mothers could devote more time to children because there were not waiting to return to work or preparing children for child-care outside the home. There was also more freedom to use natural remedies that needed frequent administration (schools on the whole will not administer homeopathic/herbal remedies). The 'knock-on' effects that emerged from the decision to home-education were remarkable.

The Joy of home-educating

The questionnaire results revealed that 35% of parents found home-educating far more fun than they could have imagined. The interviews found that more often than not, home-educating was a lifestyle decision. It was a choice about how to live far more that a statement about schooling. Families found they talked about things that mattered, describing themselves as, 'doing what we want, when we want'. Parents believed their children were developing naturally and the families involved clearly valued their closeness. There was little evidence of the sibling rivalry so often accepted as 'normal'.

Baseline Assessment

This involved 4-5 year olds who were tested twice over a 'school' year.

The PIPS Baseline assessment data indicated that 64% of the children scored over 75% on the assessment where nationally, just 5.1% of children score over 75%. 'End of Reception Year' data suggested that the children's progress over the period was less than that associated with school children during their reception year. This observation, however, was offset by the home-educated children's high baseline scores.

Children from the lower end of the socio-economic class scale significantly outscored those from the upper spectrum of the scale.

There was no score differences between families who owned and did not own a television.

Children from religious families did not score significantly differently from those children from more secular families at the start of reception although by the end of reception the score difference was significant.

Literacy Assessments

Working with the idea of a normal bell curve distribution, we expect to find 16% of children in the top band. Percentages of home-educated children within this score band for literature were as follows:

94% of 6 year olds

77.4% of 7 year olds

73.3% of 8 year olds

82.3% of 10 year olds

Figure 1 shows the percentages of year 1, 3 and 5 children in each band. As can be seen, none of the children fell into the lower 16% band.

Figure.1: % of home-educated children's NLP scores within a normal distribution bell curve

Maths Assessments

Using the same 16% band concept the results for the home-educated children were as follows:

Pips Baseline Start of Reception Maths

Pips Baseline End of Reception Maths

Year 2 (7 year olds) Maths




Social and Psychological Data

The purpose of these assessments was to establish whether home-educated children experienced social or behavioural problems.

Overall, the results confirmed that home-educated children were socially adept and did not display behavioural problems above the norm

In more detail:

CABS - the children were more passive than aggressive in all areas except the making and receiving of complaints where some children were very passive and others very aggressive. In terms of assertiveness the children were within the band considered 'normal'.

The Goodman Scale diagnosed many of the home-educated children as having peer problems. However, this scale represented common expectations that children should prefer the company of other children, should be liked by other children, should have at least one good friend, should prefer to play in groups and should want to share with other children. These are aspects of behaviour expected of schoolchildren. Where home-educated children are concerned, they tend mix with both children and adults, enjoying the company of all ages equally, sometimes other children do not like them, they tend to have a number of friendships from across the age spectrum and very often do not prefer to play in groups. Many home-educating families see sharing as maturational and do not expect their children to specifically share with other children. The research found that children learning at home have very difference experiences and skills from school children and that to expect the same of all children underestimates many valuable aspects of the home-educated children's characters. These children lived a very different life from children at school; their values were different and they were growing and developing on a path that was in so many ways, dissimilar from their schooled peers.

The Rutter Scale, with twice as many questions as the Goodman Scale and with its broader perspective showed all the children to fall within acceptable social and behavioural parameters.

Discussion Summary Points


Overall, the home-educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills. Common to all families was their flexible approach. The children benefited from parental attention and the freedom to develop their skills at their own pace. Families enjoyed strong bonds and parents were committed to providing a nurturing environment for their children.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 02 October 2002