Home schooling: the pitfalls and benefits
Educating your children at home is gaining ground as a preferred option for parents around Australia, but with as many pitfalls as benefits, it’s not a choice that should be made lightly, writes Sue Smethurst.
PI DIBBEN DREAMS of becoming an archaeologist and, at the tender age of 10, it is well within her reach. The Year Four student is doing so well at school that she has been chosen to participate in a physics mentoring program with the University of Wollongong and, says her teacher, she’s on track to conquer anything she sets her mind to.
“She’s a great learner,” says her teacher. “I can see when she gets a rush of education endorphins and something she’s learning clicks.”
Her teacher happens to be her mum, Myfanwy Dibben, and Pi is one of a growing number of students thriving in home schooling.
Once the domain of hippies or alternative-lifestyle lovers, home schooling is undergoing a mainstream revolution in Australia and, today, thousands of families have turned their backs on the traditional classroom, opting to do it themselves.
Last year, according to the NSW parliament, 13,100 children were registered to be home schooled in Australia, but some education experts believe that figure may be closer to a staggering 50,000, with many parents not bothering to register.
“These figures don’t surprise me at all,” says education academic and Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University, Dr Kevin Donnelly. “Australia is following the global trends of the UK, USA and Canada, where parents are choosing to educate their kids at home. At one time, it was the domain of hippy families, but now home schooling is done by many different families for many different reasons.”
Bullying, big class sizes, distance, struggling to fit in, cost and the “dumbing down of the curriculum”
are commonly cited by parents as influencing their decision to take matters into their own hands. Yet Melbourne mum Tracy Careless says her decision to educate her five children at home came down to family.
“I’m not against school, but I see the flaws,” she says. “You help your children to crawl and walk, and ride a bike, you support them and facilitate them through every step in life – this is no different. Home schooling is about family and it’s given us an amazing connection. I love every minute of it.”
NO MORNING MAYHEM
As the calendar ticks down towards the end of every January, many battle-weary mums and dads breathe a sigh of relief that back-to-school day is on the horizon.
Yet Tracy never agonised about waving her babies goodbye at the school gate and there was none of the morning mayhem of lunchboxes and ironing uniforms. She simply set up five desks in the lounge room, the postie delivered the books and the kids were ready for school.
“I was very structured,” she explains. “We followed the school year and the school timetable, so we’d have holidays when the other kids were on holiday and we’d start class at 8:45am and finish at 3:30pm. I’d bake a cake most days for morning tea and, if they got their work done early, they were allowed to go outside and play for the rest of the day.”
Sixteen-year-old Ruth, completing Year 11, is the last child studying at home. Her brothers and sisters have all successfully gone on to careers in childcare, logistics, retail and business. They have also all learned French, been involved in community work, including volunteer fire fighting, and been in the local youth band.
“They’re great kids, they’re all very mature and we’re really proud of them,” Tracy says. “We’re not hippies and we’re not alternative, we’re just a normal family and this worked really well for us.”
The profile of home schooling was given a massive boost last year when Victorian VCE student Steven Zhang achieved a near-perfect ATAR score of 99.95. Steven had been home schooled by his mum until Year 10, then switched to distance education to obtain his VCE. One of the state’s top achievers, he shone a light on what has been a silent suburban revolution.
He follows in the footsteps of Taylor Swift, former US Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, who were all successfully home schooled.
The number of home-educated kids is increasing so rapidly that the NSW government recently held a parliamentary inquiry into the state of home schooling. Its report says that the number of children being home schooled in NSW has increased by a staggering 44 per cent since 2008. In Victoria, the figure has doubled.
Dr Donnelly, who recently cochaired the federal government’s review into the national curriculum, is not surprised – he says that Australia is following a global trend.
“There have been very genuine concerns from parents that education standards are slipping and that education has become too politically correct,” he says. “These are mainstream parents, who want subjects such as history taught by facts, not with the bias of the politics of the day.”
“It has given us an amazing connection. I love every minute of it.”
Myf Dibben’s interest in home schooling was sparked when she and her husband, a Qantas pilot, were stationed in Switzerland. Myf is a qualified high school teacher with a passion for public education, but she was so impressed by Swiss friends who home schooled their children, she began to give the idea serious thought.
Initially, the Bowral school teacher couldn’t turn her back on mainstream education, so, when daughter Pi turned five, she was enrolled at the local primary school, but after just a few
months Myf made the agonising decision to pull her out. “Pi was reading at Grade Two level when she was in kinder and, after three terms at school, she was going backwards,” Myf says. “I love being a teacher, so I don’t want to criticise the system, but the system doesn’t cater for everyone and she has thrived since we brought her home.”
Tracy had been interested in home schooling, but didn’t think she could do it, so her children began their schooling at the local primary, but after three terms, she thought, “I can do a better job!”
Tracy threw herself into research about home schooling, met families who home schooled, sourced curriculum books from the US and consulted with experts before taking on the enormous task of teaching her five children, then aged under eight.
“I was absolutely terrified at first,” she says, “but now I’m at the end of it, I can see it was quite easy and I gave myself an education along the way. Everything is online now and there are wonderful support groups for parents and kids – you really aren’t alone.”
Myf loves the one-on-one time she has with her daughter and says the flexibility has been the key to Pi’s success. “Pi learns bests when it suits her,” her mother says. “She likes to start early, so some days she’ll have done her reading and comprehension before breakfast and she can do her work in her pyjamas if she wants to. It doesn’t matter, as long as the work is done.”
Tamara Kelly, President of the Home Education Association, however, warns home schooling is not for everyone. “Definitely not!” she says. “If there’s a poor family dynamic, then lack of resources and a fear of repercussions will make it difficult for some families.”
After 18 years teaching in government and non-government schools, Dr Donnelly says, “I’m a great believer in parents having the right to choose how they educate their children, but they have to be aware this is not for the faint-hearted. You must be careful, do the research and ensure that you have the time to dedicate to this. It’s a full-time job. You also need the resources to provide a rich and varied education. If you can’t provide that, don’t do it.”
In Australia, every child between six and 17 must be enrolled in school or registered home school and parents must legally register their children for home schooling. Due to the growing demand, each state now has a home schooling department within its education department or curriculum advisory board.
While Victoria and NSW have the highest numbers of children enrolled for home schooling, Tasmania and WA have the highest numbers of children home schooled per every 1000 school students.
There are many curriculum streams and home schooling methods, including the Charlotte Mason method, classical schooling, unschooling, alternative schooling and natural schooling.
Tamara Kelly says that, while there used to be worries about home schooled kids being lonely or not learning to socialise with other children, today, there are many home schooling community groups around the country organising play dates and excursions, even sporting events, so support is never too far away.
Myf and Tracy hooked up with other home schoolers in their area and organised events such as museum visits and camps.
“Where once there may have been concerns about isolation or a lack of socialisation with home education, and the parents’ knowledge of subjects to teach adequately,” says Dr Donnelly, “today home educators are well organised to provide community support and the internet has made material available online, so those issues have largely been taken away.”
Myf Dibben warns that home education is a full-time job.
“To do this, one of you will have to give up your job,” she says. “We made a positive decision to be poor, and it was the best thing we’ve done.”
For Tracy, the key to success was being super organised. “I didn’t waste a minute,” she says. “If we were in the car, we listened to audio books, if we were in the shops, we practised counting, we embraced every learning opportunity we could.
“Don’t go into it lightly, be prepared, and think about your own personal needs. If you don’t want to spend every day with your children planning school work, don’t do it!”
“If you don’t want to spend every day planning school work, don’t do it.”
Open learning: Myfanwy Dibben takes class with her daughter Pi and son e, (yes, that’s his name).
Left: Tracy Careless (standing) has tutored her five children over the years – and all have graduated from her home school, apart from 16-year-old Ruth, who’s in Year 11. Above: Her willing pupils during recess in 2004.
Pi Dibben has thrived in her mother’s home schooling environment.