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.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

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.”


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.

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