Asking Poor Questions Receives Poor Answers

What’s been said?

Learning to ask the right questions is an important skill. Ask a poor question and one will receive a poor answer. Similarly asking an uniformed person will result in an answer which is superficial. Most people would assume therefore that governments and companies which carry out public opinion surveys would have tight guidelines regarding the questions which they ask the public. This appears not to have been the case in a recent survey conducted by YouGov, a company advertising itself with the tag-line, “What the world thinks”.

On 19 March 2018, YouGov published the results of a three question survey in which the final question asked, “Do you think home schooling should or should not be allowed?” The results showed just 29 per cent agreeing that HE “Should be allowed for any parents to choose”. In contrast a total of 59 per cent of respondents thought that parents should only be allowed to HE if the local council approved, or not at all. Imagine how different the answers would have been if just one word in the question had been different. How would people have answered if they had been asked, “Do you know if home schooling should or should not be allowed?”

Why does it matter?

When planning future policies, politicians obviously want to know which will have the widest public support. That is why focus groups have become essential elements of political life. Announce the wrong policies and election results can be disastrous. That is why in the move to change EHE law, Ed Balls tried from the moment he first announced the Badman Review, to get the public to sympathise with his objectives. It is why since then we have witnessed headlines declaring home education to be an increasing danger to children. These scare stories have been magnified by Lord Soley’s Bill. Results like the ones from this survey will be an encouragement to supporters of any registration scheme which will remove educational freedom from parents and invest control of what children are taught in the state.

It is not clear how this survey was conducted. YouGov’s website suggests that they use a larger than average “panel”, but it is unclear how that panel is selected. The survey received answers from a total of 7907 UK adults, with the results being “weighted to be representative of the GB population”. What is uncertain though is how many of these people knew they were answering a question about human rights laws. One wonders how people would have answered had the question been more clearly put along the lines of, “The responsibility of parents to ensure their children are educated is enshrined in human rights legislation. Do you think this responsibility should be transferred to the state?” Whilst the original and this alternative question both raise the same issue (with difference nuances), it is very likely that significantly fewer people would favour surrendering more of their rights to the state.

What can I do?

It is very important for home educators to recognise that for the last nine years the debate about HE has not been driven by a desire to establish facts. It has been an attempt to change public opinion by headlining non-facts, scare stories about harm being caused by parents “hiding” their children from family, neighbours and the state. Two groups claim to have initiated campaigns against unregistered and illegal schools, primarily with the purpose of closing religious schools, using arguments which they also apply to EHE. These are the National Secular Society and Humanists UK, the latter welcoming the policy, recently adopted by the Liberal Democrats.

It is also important that the HE community is alert to biased, ill-informed questions like the one used in this survey. Take every opportunity to educate people you meet who are unclear about the important issue of parental responsibilities upon which the right to home educate rests.