Sensational Scottish Headline

What’s been said?

Writing for Scotland on Sunday (13 September), Chris Marshall focussed on the rise in the number of children known to be home educated in twenty-two of the thirty-two Scottish local authority areas. Under the title “Home schooling soars as parents react to cuts in the classroom“, he focussed on a 36% rise in the children being taught at home. The reason for this, he explained, was “frustration over cuts to mainstream education.”

This is far from a heavyweight piece of journalism, but Marshall did at least seek comment from two people with experience of HE. The first of these was Schoolhouse trustee Laurie Matthew, who is quoted as commenting, “Generally speaking, those people with children already in a school who get in touch with us do so because they’re having problems within the school, within the education system.” Tom Crombie, proprietor of My Online Schooling – which provides, as the name suggests, class-based tuition over the internet – told Marshall, “Our experience from talking to parents is that they feel there is a lack of support available in mainstream schools.”

Why does it matter?

The number of HE children in Scotland rising by over a third certainly makes a dramatic headline, but can it legitimately be described as soaring? Marshall handled the raw data less dramatically; numbers from the councils which responded to the survey reveal that in 2014/15 they knew of a total of six hundred and ten children being EHE. In the present academic year, this has risen to eight hundred and twenty-seven. It is this information which provided him with the figures behind his alarming headline.

Most people are familiar with the statement attributed to Benjamin Disraeli by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The problem with statistics is not the facts, but how those facts are presented. If the same figures are set alongside the number of school-aged children in Scotland, they become much less significant. The 2011 census records the number of school-aged children (5 to 17) as being approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand. If we estimate the total number of EHE children based on those councils which responded, there are around twelve hundred children known to all Scottish LAs at present. This is just 0.16% of the total number of school-aged children in the country. If that number is doubled to account for EHE children of whom LAs are unaware, there are just three children out of every thousand being taught at home. In 2014/15 the equivalent percentage of known HE children was 0.12%, but a headline which read, “Rise of 0.04% in number of children being home educated” would not be as sensational and therefore fail to imprint itself as negatively in the memories of public and politicians alike.

It is not completely clear whether it was the Scottish government or the HE community which was intended as the main target of Marshall’s piece – perhaps it was both. If he was seeking to rebuke the Holyrood government, he could have chosen a better topic than home education. His point about the increasing number of families who feel that schools are failing to provide their children with a suitable education is helpful though. Clearly this is causing more and more parents to seriously consider whether their children could receive a more appropriate education at home. As most home educators already know, it is parents of children with special needs, or those who are being bullied in school who have the greatest concerns. The HE community is also aware that this is not solely a Scottish problem. Here we recently commented on an increase in reports in England recognising that rising numbers of HE children are largely due to the problems faced by schools. It would be good to see politicians everywhere acknowledging this and trying to put their own houses in order before they rush to inspect and monitor the family homes of their citizens.

What can I do?

Firstly, let this article be a warning to read past the headlines if you want to find out the facts behind the rhetoric. Marshall’s article spun a relatively small growth in actual numbers by emphasising the percentage growth. When one reads the actual data he cited, whilst not insignificant, they do not represent a dramatic rise when compared with the overall size of the population. Some LAs in England are reporting a yearly increase of up to 70% in their known EHE cohort.

Secondly, remember that at one time HE was a choice made mainly by parents who were determined to provide their children with a good education; increasingly it is being considered by those who are desperate to do so. With the latter we should be honest enough to tell them about the many and varied costs of HE as well as its delights. The HE community will not serve them well if we encourage them to leap before they look.