The schooling choice we love to hate
June 22, 2009
It is often derided as a 'hippie' alternative, but for many the decision to home school a child is the right one.
What is it that bothers us as a society when someone chooses to educate their child at home? There is a stigma surrounding home schooling and, at the very least, a tendency to judge and stereotype: hippie; religious fundamentalist; just plain weird. But is this really justified?
Home schooling, often referred to as home education, is legal in Australia. And The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children". (Article 26). So, home schooling is a legitimate school choice, but is it a legitimate social choice?
Only in recent history has responsibility for educating children rested with the state. For most of human history, parents, extended family and notable community figures and elders were accepted as educators. In NSW the Public Instruction Act, 1880, directed parents with children aged six to 14 to "cause such children to attend school for a period of not less than 70 days in each half-year". And so state-based education became mandatory.
Some indigenous cultures have resisted relinquishing education to the state, contributing to poor attendance rates. There are examples where native Americans and Hawaiian natives have established home-schooling networks to preserve traditional values and reconcile the gulf between tribal ways and public education policy.
The US has a strong tradition of home schooling, where Australia has a strong culture of distance education (which is different to home education).
According to the NSW Board of Studies, 1016 families (1703 students) were registered for home schooling in NSW for 2007-08. The figure is likely to be higher since not all children educated at home are registered with the board.
The educational psychologist and associate professor Andrew Martin, from the University of Sydney, says parents are no longer confined to a choice between the local school and home. If a child is not suited to a local primary school, alternatives include traditional independent schools, innovative schools such as Montessori or Steiner, or trying a different public school.
Martin says "most children could, and should, fit into the various forms of school available, but under some circumstances home schooling is a reasonable choice". He says it must always be a child-centred decision to home school, not parent-centred.
Criticisms levelled against home schooling range from a lack of socialisation, limited access to higher education and qualifications, to greater opportunities for child abuse.
There is a paucity of research relating to home schooling in Australia. But most of the available research - including international research - dispels these criticisms, often finding home-schooled children perform equally, or better, academically and socially. However, research in the area is difficult.
Home schoolers are a broad church and the research conducted is not always independent. The concept of home schooling is confronting for some sectors of the sophisticated education system that has evolved since compulsory schooling. They ask whether a mother or father is capable of providing what a qualified teacher can after years at university and on-the-job training. Conversely, some see the movement as reclaiming parental responsibility and restoring confidence in parents' natural ability to teach and guide.
Why home school? The reasons go deeper than no uniforms, no homework and no need to drop-off or pick-up. But the impact of these modern pressures - on children and parents - should not be underestimated.
The motivations most commonly cited by parents who home school include: a heightened sense of responsibility for their child's education; wanting to provide one-to-one education, rather than a large class ratio; a desire to create a strong emotional core in their child before exposure to bullying behaviours and peer pressure; and to keep their child's natural curiosity, and love of learning intact.
(Winter 2009), a journal published by Stanford University, says 70 per cent of US parents who school their children at home give non-religious reasons for doing so.
The most common reason is a concern about the local school environment. In the journal, the historian Milton Gaither says home schooling is not limited to the religious fundamentalists and the countercultural left - now there is a "mainstreaming" of home schooling as "the new home schoolers" emerge.
Gaither says "many [US] public school districts, having lost the fight to criminalise home schooling, now openly court home schoolers … experimenting with programs that allow students to home school for part of the day but take certain classes at the local public school".
In the future, he predicts, home schooling will segue into hybrid education as virtual schools, distance learning, sophisticated educational software and online communication continue to spread. This is not dissimilar to the "working from home" culture we have embraced. And state governments are likely to become increasingly accommodating towards a movement that saves them money.
In NSW, home education is subject to registration with the NSW Board of Studies.
Parents need no teaching experience. To support an application you need:
An outline of studies;
A method to record learning;
A method to record achievement;
Resources and facilities;
A suitable learning area.
Home-educated students may undertake standardised tests in years 3, 5 and 7 at home.
Home-educated students need to be enrolled in a government or registered non-government school for school and higher school certificate assessments and exams.
Go to boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au.