“We have no Research Data about Home Educators”

Urgent request for responses to a survey about home educators’ experiences of exam cancellations

What’s been said?

In response to repeated claims of ‘gaps in data’ and a ‘lack of systematic data’ about home educators, researcher Jo Merrett of Exeter University is currently conducting a survey of home educators’ experiences of exam cancellations, and seeking as many respondents as possible.

For example, Robert Halfon MP wrote to Education Minister, Gavin Williamson on 3 December 2020, with his views on home education before his Committee had concluded its inquiry:

“Without this data, gaps in our understanding of the attainment and outcomes for the full range of children educated at home remain.

Lack of access to systematic data is likely to limit understanding of the reasons why children are not in school, as well as limiting ability to provide them with adequate support.”

It is hoped that the results of Merrett’s survey can be a helpful supplement to responses to the recent Ofqual consultation which closed yesterday (29 Jan) and she is looking for respondents this weekend.

The Scottish Home Education Forum reported on this on 28 January, noting that “As a home educating mother of two herself, Jo is committed to raising awareness and understanding of the unique issues faced by home educators as a result of these unprecedented exam cancellations.”

Why does it matter?

Home education is a legal option, yet it is consistently left out of policy-making. Merrett points out that political exclusion is easy if you can say, “Well, we don’t know anything about them,” or “There is no data or research, so how can we know how to include them in this policy?”

She claims that the need to understand home educated young people’s experience of preparing for exams, and the subsequent effect of the 2020 exam cancellations upon them, is urgent. Some work has already contributed towards an understanding of how schooled young people experience exams and the stress of preparing for and sitting exams (Putwain, 2011; Pressley et al, 1997).

However, only one small UK-based study (Atkinson et al, 2007) has sought any understanding of home educators’ experience. It is now vital to look at the short and long term implications of the exam cancellation policy for home educators.

How were these young people’s next steps in education affected? What support, if any, was offered to those self-funding candidates who electively home-educate (EHE), and what solutions may there be for the Department for Education’s contingency planning?

In her own recent comments, Merrett has observed the sharply contrasting outcomes for home educated and schooled young people. “In summer 2020 many home educators were left without a grade or consideration of how they may be able to gain one, unlike schooled children who had predicted grades or teacher assessed work”.

She claims that no adequate contingency plans have currently been made to support the generation of home educators now facing their second year of restricted access to sitting public exams or gaining grades, leaving many without the option to progress normally onto higher or further education. Another consequence of this is the significant risk that some are pushed out of the national funding age of 14-19 years.

The issues around EHE young people accessing exams and grades have been brought to the forefront of public and political attention by three factors:

  • The government’s COVID-19 influenced decision to base GCSEs and A-levels in summer 2020 on teacher-predicted grades;
  • The Education Select Committee’s Inquiry into Home Education;
  • Exam cancellations in 2021 and subsequent consultation.

The exam cancellation guidelines systematically excluded the needs of EHE children, asserts Merrett (Merrett et al., 2020), meaning an estimated ten to twenty thousand EHE children missed out on obtaining any GCSE or A-level grades. She suggests that the fact they therefore missed out on progression opportunities to enrol in further and higher education resulted in “a significant equity issue.”

As far back as 2013, the House of Commons Education Committee report “Support for Home Education” concluded that there was a recognised struggle for home educated young people to access exam centres. Indeed, it recommended that the government place a “duty on every local authority to ensure access to a local centre or young people to sit accredited public examinations.” (Paragraph 43)

The need to overcome political exclusion (Headstrom & Smith 2013) and successfully engage with home educators in decision-making around how exams will be made available and marked for a grade, in the potential absence of available exam centres or due to Covid-induced exam cancellations, becomes urgent.

New pressure from teaching unions to cancel summer 2021 exams in favour of teacher-assessed work poses a significant and detrimental threat to home educators’ future prospects. Last year many HE young people were unable to submit teacher or tutor assessed work, or had self studied and were not eligible for a Centre Assessed Grades (CAG), as detailed in this University of Exeter Centre for Social Mobility article.

What can I do?

Take part in the survey this weekend if :

  • you are a young person taking exams;
  • are a parent of HE young people who are due to take exams now or in the future (even if you have young ones);
  • if you are a HE adult who has been through exams in the past;

If you are a family with 14-19 year olds, you can also take part in interviews for a ‘youth voice’ project.

In this way, you can play your part in challenging what researchers have called “noticeable exclusion from policy consideration” regarding HE young people’s access to exams.

The more people take part, the more the survey can demonstrate “normal ways of practice” and an existing culture of self study.