Young people who are homeschooled are more politically tolerant than their state-educated peers, according to new research suggesting that children become more open-minded the longer they are taught at home.
The findings contradict the stereotype of marginalised and isolated home-educated students who lack interaction with different types of children. Instead, homeschooled students were found to be more tolerant than young people at state schools towards social and political groups whose views they did not share.
The personalised nature of home education enables children to become "comfortable with their identity", the researchers suggest, which helps them to accept different kinds of people. Political correctness in schools may also be hampering genuine and open debate, preventing young people from developing more tolerant attitudes, according to Albert Cheng, who led the research project for the University of Arkansas in the US.
The study provides a rare insight into the minds of homeeducated students, who are difficult to assess as they are taught outside formal school systems.
In 2009, a government-commissioned review estimated that the number of home-educated children in the UK was anywhere between 20,000 and more than 80,000. The Badman review of home education, which was prompted by safeguarding concerns, recommended that parents of homeschooled children sign up to a formal register. But the suggestion of a register was vehemently opposed by the home education lobby and was never implemented.
In the US, parents who homeschool their children are often thought to be political or religious fundamentalists who reject state involvement in raising their children, experts have said.
The new research questioned more than 300 undergraduate students at a Christian university to gauge their tolerance, defined as the "willingness to extend basic civil liberties to political or social groups that hold views with which one disagrees". The results show that students taught at home are more tolerant of people with different views participating in public life by, for example, working as teachers or running for political office.
"One reason for the result would be because homeschooling is so individualised," Mr Cheng told TES. "It might be that the teaching is so personalised and focused on them becoming who they are that it promotes self-actualisation, and therefore they are very comfortable with their identity, so they might be happy to deal with people who are different from themselves."
Another reason could be that the often religious nature of home education in the US instilled tolerance, he said. By contrast, Mr Cheng suggested that traditional state school students struggled to develop political tolerance. "This could be down to an atmosphere of political correctness, which means you can't have an honest debate about these issues and so you don't get a clear picture [of the other side]," he said.
The research was welcomed by Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University and an expert on home- schooling, but he said it would take many more studies of the kind to generate a clear picture of home educators.
"One of the issues we have when it comes to research is we have no way of knowing who homeschools," Professor Kunzman said. "We need more studies like this one, so we can piece together a broader mosaic.but certainly what this suggests is that there is no good reason to think homeschoolers are inherently less politically tolerant or that homeschooling inherently contributes to that. And I think that's something. It pushes back against some of the preconceived notions that we might have."
Education Otherwise, a lobby group acting on behalf of home educators in the UK, said the findings supported its view that home educators had a "greater experience of life".
Edwina Theunissen, spokesperson for the group, said: "Home education is not confined to a certain space, and you are not dealing with the same people day after day. We come from all walks of life, from every part of society, and so it does not surprise me that [children] would be found to be more politically tolerant, and certainly more politically aware."
But John Bangs, visiting professor at the University of London's Institute of Education, said he "simply did not recognise" the picture of state schools hampered by political correctness. "That broad general assumption is outrageous," he said. "The idea that state schools are too politically correct to encourage debate and tolerance runs counter to everything I've seen."
He said that through his own studies of white working-class boys he had met headteachers who "wouldn't bat an eyelid" at tackling big issues such as immigration. "There wasn't a smidgen of political correctness in their relationship between the school, parents and kids; there wasn't a set of lines people were not allowed to cross."