It is one of the enduring mysteries of home education in this country; how many children are actually being educated at home? The Ofsted survey Local authorities and home education, which was published in June, sheds new light upon this.

One big problem when trying to calculate the numbers of home educated children is that everybody exaggerates or underestimate the numbers depending upon who they are talking to and what they wish to prove. Home educating parents do this and so do local authorities and the Department for Education. Graham Badman's report, for instance talks of as many as eighty thousand home educated children in England. The reason for such a high estimate is simple; the more kids there are not at school, the more urgent is the need to do something about them. Badman gave no grounds for putting this figure forward. When the Department for Children, Schools and Families were compiling the impact statement to go with the CSF Bill on the other hand, they ridiculed the suggestion that there might be as many as eighty thousand children. They estimated the true number as much lower. Again, they gave no evidence for this belief. The reason for their wanting a lower figure was that it would make the estimated cost of implementing the bill lower and therefore more acceptable to MPs. Home educators sometimes like to pretend that their are lots of home educated children, if they are trying to make home education look like an unstoppable mass movement. At other times, they want to persuade people that there are only a few measly thousand. They do this when they wish to make the case that because there are so few children, no new legislation is needed.

So what do we actually know about the numbers of home educated children? When York Consulting undertook their feasibility study in 2006, they came up with a rough figure of twenty thousand children known to local authorities. they arrived at this figure by extrapolating from the nine local authorities at whom they looked. It is thought that there are a considerable number of other children who are not registered with local authorities. Many people assume that there are about the same number again as are known, which would give a total number for the whole country of around forty thousand. There is a problem with this though.

Ofsted discovered during their survey last year that the number of home educated children known to local authorities fluctuates dramatically throughout the year. There are usually plenty in September when children are supposed to move to secondary school and their parents decide not to send them. However, by Christmas, many of these parents find that they can't really manage it and then send their kids to school in the new year. One authority found that they had sixty five home educated children in September and only thirty five in the spring. Another had six hundred and thirty in September, which dropped to four hundred and thirty after Christmas. Since there is no standard time to conduct the census of home educated children, it means that the figure of twenty thousand which York Consulting came up with could be wildly out. If the figures they worked from were collected at the beginning of the academic year, then the true number of home educated children could be as few as ten or twelve thousand rather than twenty thousand. If we then accept that roughly the same number of children again are not known to their authorities, this would give us an overall figure for the whole country of only twenty or twenty five thousand. This is a good deal lower than the often quoted figures.

There is also increasing doubt as to the number of children not known to local authorities. Most have lists of rising fives and work together with health visitors and so on. It is quite possible that the number of unknown children is far fewer than those who are registered. All in all, it could be that the actual total number of home educated children in the country is a lot les than twenty thousand.