The elephant in the home education room

There seems little doubt that the number of children in the United Kingdom being educated by their parents is growing. Since nobody knows how many there actually are of course, it is impossible to say what the rate of growth is. It is probably not as fast as some have suggested. In a book last year, for instance, Mike Fortune-Wood claimed that something over eighty thousand children in this country were being electively home educated. In a post on his list HE-UK yesterday, the number seems to have grown to over a hundred thousand!

The really steep increase in numbers of such children began some time in the 1990s. The Internet probably played a role in this, as parents could now be in touch instantly with others who could counsel and advice them. Information on court cases and the relevant legislation also became available at the click of a mouse. We all have a tendency to project our own character upon other people. So if we withdrew our children from school because we felt that it was not right for them and we are genuinely providing them with an education, we tend naturally to assume that others who de-register their children or don't send them to school in the first place are working from a perspective similar to our own. This can be a mistake.

Much of the current alarm over home education and calls for something to be done about it have been precipitated not by the sort of home educating parent one sees on Internet lists or meets at groups. It has rather been precipitated by concern about children in the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller 'community'. In late 2005, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned Arthur Ivatts to look into the situation with children in this community who were not attending school. The following year, he produced his report. It was called Elective Home Education: the situation regarding current policy, provision and practice in Elective Home Education for Gypsy, Roma and traveller Children (DfES Research Report RW77). His conclusions can be briefly summed as as follows. First, a large and increasing number of these children were not being sent to school on the grounds that their parents were educating them. Secondly, their parents were not really able to do so and the whole thing was a scam, designed to allow the parents not to bother with their children's education. Thirdly, the law needed to be tightened up to put a stop to this practice.

Home educating parents often seem unsure what has been driving the calls for change in legislation. It really began in earnest with Ivatts' report. In some local authorities, over half the children known to the authority who are supposedly being home educated belong to this group. It will be remembered that one criticism of the York Consulting research was that they had chosen nine local authorities with a disproportionate number of travellers. In fact, many local authorities now believe that this might be the single largest group of home educated children. In other words, the rise in numbers of home educated children might be caused not by the sort of parent who belongs to Education Otherwise, or who posts on HE-UK, but by Gypsies and Travellers who do not want their children to attend school.

The interesting thing about this is that it is seldom discussed openly. This is probably because people are nervous of being accused of racism and bend over backwards to be culturally sensitive. If the girls in this community stop education at primary age and help their mothers round the camp, well that's their custom. Who is to say that this is any the less of an education than that in schools?

Taking action against the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community about whether their kids are in school or not is frankly impossible. However, the inability to tackle this issue in that particular community will have a knock-on effect on those who do not live in caravans. If a moral panic about elective home education sweeps through local authorities and they feel that they must do something about it on their patch, then most of the EWOs will not be wishing to trudge down to the nearest camp and confront a crowd of angry Gypsies. Far easier and more enjoyable to turn up on the doorstep of a single mother who might be more likely to listen to reason. Much of the present atmosphere about home education began with the Ivatts report. It is certainly worth reading if one wants to know the background to the current debate on the subject.