A systematic review of methodologies in UK Home Education studies: Recommendations for development and practice

Fensham-Smith, Amber and Flack, Zoe A systematic review of methodologies in UK Home Education studies: Recommendations for development and practice. In: BERA conference 2020, 8-10 Sep 2020 (conference cancelled), University of Liverpool.

Abstract

Anecdotally, the number of UK family’s home-educating has increased in recent years (Smith & Nelson, 2015), with estimates placing the current number of home-educated children at 37,500 to 150,000 (e.g.DfES, 2007; Rothermel, 2004; Smith & Nelson, 2015). Suggested growth in home-education means a greater need than ever to understand this area of alternative education. Yet the research methodologies adopted to explore this field of study, have been somewhat limited in their design and scope. In the largest systematic review of home education research published in the English language, Kunzman and Gaither (2013) noted the prevalence of small-scale qualitative studies and the self-selective nature of sampling designs. Indeed, the absence of representative quantitative data has hindered the extent to which scholars can draw meaningful insights and to make truth claims about the UK EHE population. More recently, Bhopal and Myers (2018) and D’Arcy (2012) have surfaced the experiences of exclusion that communities face within so called ‘mainstream’ home education studies.

With registration plans for EHE in England on the horizon, there is a pressing need to critically review the evidence base upon which both rhetoric and empirical realities seemingly co-exit. Fensham-Smith (2017; 2019) has argued elsewhere that home education research is marked by partisanship. Indeed, the process of evaluating the supposed ‘quality’ of qualitative research is not a value free act. Nor is it an easy task to achieve within the context of being viewed by advocates as a scholar who is either ‘for’ or ‘against’ home education.

The authors of this study sought to meaningfully progress discussion and analysis in this field through conducting a systematic PRISMA review and meta-analysis of all UK home-education research from 1980-2020. We identified 10,252 texts, of which 87 met our inclusion criteria. Texts were assessed for quality using an assessment framework. UK home-education research is predominantly qualitative. Whilst this provides a picture of the experiences of home-educating families, it is less helpful for informing policy. We argue that more quantitative research is necessary while the government are formulating legislative changes. Authors of the limited quantitative studies noted difficulties in gaining access to representative samples. Home-educators are considered hard-to-reach due to issues of diversity and mistrust of authorities (e.g., Kunzman & Gaither, 2013). In addition, we found only three studies which give voice to the experiences of home-educated children themselves, meaning that children’s views are likely under-represented in the shaping of future policy which directly impacts them.

The findings of this study shed light on the strengths and gaps in the current literature and how this influences our current understanding of UK home-education. We consider the constraints and opportunities for research in UK home-education research, and associated challenges of conducting research with a hard-to-reach population such as home-educators. More broadly, we reflect on the some of the epistemological and ontological assumptions to underpin ‘quality’ and ‘impact’ within the context of this study and others that have sought to evaluate the authenticity and validity of qualitative research (Morse et. Al, 2002). Finally, we make recommendations for future research which reflect the evolving landscape of home-education in the UK.

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