Each Australian state has had its own legislation around home schooling. (This arena is not my forté so I’ll only address it very briefly.) Until a few years ago it was perfectly legal in Victoria for parents to home educate their children without intervention, assessment or supervision of any kind. It was simply required that parents be providing sufficient and thorough education in the main key areas and that children be schooled five half-days a week (by memory!). Then the law changed and the Victorian Department of Education now requires families to register if they wish to home educate.
There was quite a resistance to this new legislation from many families who felt that the government had no right to interfere in their educational choices, which they believed flow on from our rights as parents. They saw this new law as ‘the thin edge of the wedge’ – first we would have to register and then ‘they’ would begin to control what we could do and how we do it… The Victorian Education Department position, when this legislation was announced, was that there was no intention of controlling home educating families; it was mainly to be able to account for children and be sure that no-one was being neglected. In Victoria it is still the case that one literally only needs to register the intention to home school, but in other states parents are required to fill in extensive paperwork and reports and jump through hoops that, to some extent, defeat the purpose of home educating (certainly for the ‘natural learners’ who don’t aim to replicate school at home).
Many families ‘went underground’ in response to the legislation. They opted not to register so they could retain their freedom. (There are many deeply thought-through reasons for taking this position.) Others opted to register so that they could openly home school and promote the validity of this choice to others. Still others don’t register but remain open and public about what they are doing.
Parents who decide to home educate face essentially the same two questions from everybody (and I really do mean everybody. This includes one’s family and friends and strangers in the street who are wondering why your child is not in school during school hours).
1. How do you know what to teach them?
After all, the school curriculum appears to be quite a complex, multi-faceted thing, so how is a truck driver who didn’t finish school supposed to know what to teach? Besides, not many parents understand Year 12 Physics, and there’s no way that a single household can offer all the choices and experiences that today’s schools offer, so aren’t you depriving your children? And how will you know if they’re doing all right? And how will they get into uni if they don’t go to school?
2. How will they get socialised?
In the shadow of this question is the concern that it’s not healthy for kids to only mix within their own families – and aren’t you being a little over-protective? After all, it’s healthy for kids to have to deal with that playground stuff!
Good questions – we’ll come back to them.
I heard about home schooling via a family I met through an attachment parenting community. My first child was three months old when we visited this family, and I was absolutely captivated by their household and the creative chaos I encountered there. A seed was planted…
When my son was eighteen months old we attended a home education camp and I fell in love with the whole idea. I loved the community feel, I loved watching children of all ages play together without segregation, I loved the sense of trust these parents demonstrated in their children, and I loved the possibility of participating in my child’s growing up process rather than handing him over at age five. The clincher for me was a conversation I had with a teenage boy who was able to hold my gaze and speak to me in a very mature manner even though I was an unknown (to him) adult – of the opposite gender to boot!
My husband and I announced our intention to home educate to our family, and when my son turned five I began to teach him to read, as you do… We played around with phonics for a few weeks and then got busy with ‘life’ – visiting friends, going to the park, going shopping, etc. Some nine months later it occurred to me that we really should do a bit more of that reading thing. We brought out the books and I was stunned to find that my son’s reading and writing had advanced dramatically in the absence of any formal lessons. How could this be?!
The pattern continued. When my twin daughters were school age we found that one was interested in reading while the other struggled. The daughter who struggled demonstrated a kind of dyslexia that would have sent her to ‘Reading Recovery’ in a flash had she been at school. (She became quite famous in our family for her ability to read faster and more fluently when the book was held upside down than when it was the right way up. It was clearly a brain thing.)
I made regular forays into the world of reading with her, encouraging her to read even one sentence or one paragraph a day, but otherwise I let her be. I knew that eventually she would want to read so much that it would simply ‘click’. And it did, at around age twelve… and she is today probably the biggest reader in our family. This is quite a common occurrence when children are left to unfold in their own timing. A child who doesn’t ‘get’ reading at ‘the cat sat on the mat’ stage leaps directly into it at Harry Potter stage and eats books for breakfast. Who’s to say that is a disadvantage? I hardly think so…
Both girls had atrocious spelling for years, and in both cases, their spelling improved ‘miraculously’ over time – without doing tedious spelling lists – as they read more and wrote more. Being a writer myself, I had no fears or doubts about their ability to master written expression. I completely trusted them to be able to do this when they needed to, and so we spent very little time on formal comprehension exercises and essays. (The ‘dyslexic’ daughter emerged from her first year of formal schooling last year, at age sixteen, with an A for English and excellent marks for all of her essays, having never written a complete essay in her life prior to that.)
To be honest, my early home education visions had been of my three children sitting at the kitchen table and tearing through text books at a rate of knots all because of the individual attention I would be giving them. In my vision they would be far ahead of their school counterparts. (If you sense a competitive streak here, you’re not wrong.)
However ‘pride goes before a fall’, as they say, and life served up a very different experience. I’d been a very academically-oriented, A-grade student who completed Year 12 as Dux of Humanities, and I fully expected my children to follow in my footsteps. No-one was more surprised than I when not one of them showed the slightest interest in anything academic. They all much preferred to climb a tree.
As I’d been the sort of child who specialises in notes excusing her from Sport, and had subsequently not been very confident or well-grounded in my body, when I had children I knew that I wanted them to find their bodies before they found books, so I was quite happy about the tree-climbing etc. I just hadn’t been prepared for the fact that books would almost never become the priority.
Maths was another interesting adventure. My son decided he hated it and was terrible at it even though he wasn’t at all. He could add, subtract and multiply faster than me (and in his head, while I needed to work things out on paper), but didn’t accept that as evidence of ability. We tussled over the maths issue for some years, culminating in him undertaking a tuition program for a year when he was about fourteen. However in the very year that he was assessed as demonstrating Grade Two Level Maths ability by the supervisor, he did some work experience with a staircase builder friend of mine who pronounced his Maths to be ‘better than the Year 10 boys from the local private school who come and do work experience with me’. Interesting…
I concluded that in the real life environment of work with the builder where he was treated like a young man, my son’s brain literally ‘switched on’; in the passive, school-like environment of the tuition class, where he was working through tedious, repetitive maths exercises that were unrelated to real life, he became bored and frustrated and his brain ‘switched off’. (By the end of the year, he had progressed and was marginally less resentful of this tuition process, but it was like pulling teeth and I’m absolutely convinced that real life learning is the way to go.)