This post reviews Sarah Parsons and Ann Lewis, “The Home-Education of Children with Special Needs or Disabilities in the UK: Views of Parents from an Online Survey” in International Journal of Inclusive Education 14, no. 1 (February 2010): 67-86.
Parsons, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, and Lewis, a professor at the same institution, came to this project after an earlier study of parents of children with disabilities kept running into anomalies. Parsons and Lewis kept finding parents who didn’t fit their survey categories because they had pulled their kids out of schools. 7% of the sample of their earlier study had done this, which was a surprise to Parsons and Lewis. They were further surprised at how many of these parents expressed frustration that their choices and views weren’t being taken into consideration in the original study. As Parsons and Lewis put it, “our interest (and conscience) pricked, we were determined to find out more about these ‘invisible’ families.” (p. 68) So they created an online survey for homeschooling families with special needs kids and got 27 British parents to fill it out. Here is what they found:
Demographically, the respondents were nearly all female and white. Educational level of the mothers ranged widely. Interestingly, only about half self-identified as Christian. Their children’s special needs ranged widely, though the most frequently cited disability was Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The majority of these families pulled their child out of school because of a felt sense that the child’s unique needs were not being adequately addressed. Two-thirds of them were not ideologically committed to homeschooling (and many had other children still in school), but turned to it out of frustration with institutional schooling, what the authors call the “push factor.” As one mother put it, “We are not choosing home education as an alternative lifestyle choice, but have been left with no other acceptable option.” (p. 77)
What is pushing these parents away? The most frequently cited reason was child unhappiness, stress, or depression at school, followed closely by bullying. Significantly, NO respondents cited a desire to impart moral or religious beliefs to their children.
Why did they choose homeschooling? Mostly for the flexibility and freedom for children to learn at their own pace.
Drawbacks? All but three respondents mentioned cons to their choice, ranging from the cost for materials to loss of free time and increased strain on the mother. A couple mentioned social disapproval of their decision from outsiders.
What do they do? Most say they began with a fairly rigid school-at-home approach but have gradually relaxed methodology. Though a few were on the extremes of high and low levels of structure, most respondents congregated in the middle. Most claimed they weren’t following the British National Curriculum, but when they described their activities, the same basic subjects were covered by nearly everyone.
After summarizing their results, Parsons and Lewis ask what their data means for public policy toward children with special needs. They note that, despite the popularity of inclusion models among policy makers, parents in many studies have expressed more satisfaction with educational models that are tailored to their child’s particular disability rather than having their child mainstreamed in regular classrooms. This is especially the case for children with ASD. The authors remind us that the majority of these parents did not “choose” homeschooling but felt that it was thrust upon them because of the lack of better options. Would better options bring these families back? Perhaps. But what would that look like?
One of the hot topics in British education evidently is “personalization”–the move toward a more “learner-centred curriculum that can be delivered flexibly and is based on individual needs and targets.” (p.83). As promising as that sounds, Parsons and Lewis note that to date children with special needs have not been given much attention under this new paradigm. But raising academic standards has. The authors conclude that the goal of personalization should focus more on student needs than on pre-ordained academic outcomes.
I’d like to make two comments about this study. First off, though the sample size is small and not at all controlled, the points made by these homeschooling special educators echo points made by others writing about homeschooling special needs kids. For examples, see previous reviews I’ve done on this topic here (Lisa Rivero) and here (Carrie Winstanley). Most notable are the recurring theme that for children with special needs, the “push factors” of negative school experiences seem to best explain the move toward homeschooling, and that these families are often not like the typical conservative Christian homeschool stereotype.
Secondly, these researchers were able to get published in a reputable journal using a very simple methodology, a teeny sample, and fairly cursory data. This topic of homeschooling and special education is crying out for more rigorous attention. I know I have several graduate students who read this blog regularly. Here’s a wide-open and juicy topic if you want it.