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All's well on home front

While the political spotlight remains fixed on schools, one group of young learners is invariably forgotten - the children who are educated at home.

Although there are no precise statistics, it is estimated that the parents of about 50,000 UK children have opted out of the school system. How are they faring - educationally and socially? Rather well, it seems.

Paula Rothermel, a researcher at Durham University, who has surveyed 900 families who have rejected schools, found their children appeared "self-confident, self-motivated and demonstrate good levels of attainment". They also seemed to benefit from the concentrated attention coupled with a flexible curriculum that reflects their interests.

Some critics of home education will argue that these findings are predictable. After all, such children experience the best pupil-teacher ratios and a superabundance of parental involvement.

Furthermore, is not it true that parents who tutor their children at home tend to be academics or middle-class professionals?

Not really, judging by Paula Rothermel's study. A relatively high proportion of the parents were teachers (23 per cent) but the parents surveyed were not confined to any social group.

"The sample included travellers, those on very low incomes, religious families, single-parent families and same-sex parent families," says Rothermel, who interviewed 100 families and is still analysing her data. "There was more or less an equal spread between parents who did and did not hold professional qualifications. Parents in manual employment, however, outnumbered those employed professionally."

Rothermel found that parenting styles varied from libertarian to autocratic. Their teaching approaches also differed greatly. Fourteen per cent of families followed the national curriculum, 58 per cent said they did not use it and 28 per cent referred to it occasionally.

The range of children's reading ability was very wide, too. The children from religious backgrounds were often among the earliest readers. However, even the "non-reading" seven to 11-year-olds tended to enjoy books. And analysis of the National Literacy Project assessments completed by more than 50 children suggest that they are considerably above the national average.

The only negative finding related to four-year-olds. Rothermel tested more than 30 home-educated infants and found they made slower progress than school pupils during the reception year.

Home education: a critical evaluation, by Paula Rothermel, School of Education, Durham University, tel. 01457-872946.

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