School's out for the home-educators

 

A USUAL morning for mother-of-three Aoife Duffy begins with her daughter Riana asking for a maths lesson. “She’ll bring me the book, bring me her abacus, I’ll show her how to do one or two sums and she’ll go at it then.”

Duffy is sitting feeding her baby in Imaginosity Dublin Children’s Museum. She drives here from Westmeath every fortnight with Joe (6), Riana (5) and Liam (6 months) to meet others from Hen (the Home Education Network).

Duffy is one of 1,000 or so parents in Ireland – published research on exact figures is scant – who have challenged convention by educating their children at home. “I can’t believe how much they want to learn stuff. We don’t do structured lessons, we don’t do a certain amount every day, but I found that from a very early age my son wanted to learn the alphabet.”

Things have come a long way since the 1980s and 1990s when Duffy herself was home-schooled with her 10 siblings. Home education has emerged from the shadows since it became regulated by the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, which safeguards every child’s constitutional right to a “minimum education”.

Although the National Education (Welfare) Board (NEWB) does not offer material support to home-schoolers, voluntary organisations such as Hen help create necessary social frameworks and collaboration within this otherwise diffuse community. While no formal educational qualifications are required of parents, many cheap or free learning resources are available online to make the challenge easier.

Parents might choose this pathway on ideological grounds, disagreeing with religious or non-religious curricula, or due to a concern for the quality or content of education on offer.

With the education system’s focus on literacy, language and numeracy from age four, the more holistic needs of the child – play, and their spiritual, emotional and creative development – may be given less chance to flourish.

The disciplined environment of most classrooms, where teachers are often managing 30 children or more, does not suit every child. Special needs or bullying, resulting in the system not meeting a child’s needs, might also precipitate a parent’s decision.

As home-schooling is still a small movement here – the tradition has evolved more in Canada, the US and the UK – it is sometimes perceived negatively. Many people fear a Robinson Crusoe-style upbringing that gives a child too much freedom and autonomy. Or, they worry that a dangerous bubble of nurture is being formed, which will affect a child’s ability to socialise and compete in “real life” when the halcyon years have passed.

However, Duffy argues that from a social point of view the option is absolutely viable. “We meet people. Unless you have your kids locked away you’re going to meet people. And kids don’t need daily contact with other kids when they have each other – a few times a week is fine.”

She recalls not sleeping before her first day of school in fifth year, “I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up, that everybody would think I was really weird,” although she got high marks in her Leaving Cert and went on to study psychology in UCD.

Claudie Greene from France, who home-schools her two boys, Nestor (6) and Emile (4), has been labelled everything from a tree-hugger to a criminal.

“Everyone is waiting for your children to fail,” she says, inside the art studio in Imaginosity where she teaches a French class during the get-together.

Greene’s days are taken up driving her boys to various creative and hands-on activities, from gardening to crafts and yoga. “They need to see people, they need to learn from the world. We’re very flexible but they are still young, so they need a routine.”

Recently, her son Nestor wanted to learn how to read. She teaches him using the computer programme Word Shark and a “phonics” package called Letterland, which associates letters with the sounds they represent.

“The main skill for them to learn, I believe, is that if you want to learn something, you can look it up for yourself and find information in a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, the library,” she says.

Like the other mothers, Greene has made financial sacrifices, extending to the extra petrol costs incurred in all the travel. She left her job as a journalist and translator and now gives French grinds in the evenings, while other mothers here alternate with their partners and work part-time.

Some home-educating parents impose a strict learning curriculum, which might be religious-orientated; others draw from Steiner or Montessori philosophies on child development. Most adopt a “child-led” or “unschooling” approach, tuning into the individual needs, desires and pace of each child.

One belief this group of mothers share is that children, when given the opportunity, are keenly aware of what they want to learn and when.

Emily Jackson, a single mother from Wicklow who home-educates her seven-year-old son Ivan, describes how each morning he suggests a topic, whether nature, history or culture-related. They then pick a book off the shelves and discover new facts together.

“It’s so exciting; it’s a journey. His innate desire to learn is amazing. I don’t have to force-feed him information,” she says.

Jackson hopes to teach Ivan “the basics”, so that he has the option of going to secondary school and sitting certificate exams, but says there’s no pressure.

Jackson has discovered that like in a classroom when a child stops paying attention, learning cannot take place in a vacuum. “There are some days when he’s just not into it and he’s staring at the ceiling and I feel right – let’s not do it now.”

From an interactive point of view they’re lucky, she says, in that her sister is home-schooling her children and they meet up every day after lessons, as well as there being “heaps of stuff” happening through Hen.

Sarah Dawson’s daughter Amy (11) is at Claudie’s French class when we speak. Both Amy and Zoë (15) have been educated by their parents, although Zoë, who her mother says is “very artistic and musical”, attended a Steiner school for three days a week when she was four, and decided at 12 she would like to try school again and did so for two years.

“Just having the choice is what we think is really important for them,” says Dawson. “It’s about responding to the uniqueness of our own children.”

She still experiences doubt over whether she is creating enough opportunities for her children, such as interacting often with friends. But seeing their special interest in a subject gives her encouragement.

“There might be blips and gaps in their education in the formal way,” she says. “If I said, ‘Do you know what the three rivers in County Wexford are?’, they don’t know that, but Amy would know inside out if you asked her about ancient Egypt. That’s one of her passions.”

HOME EDUCATION IN IRELAND: THE STATISTICS

There are currently 627 home-schooled children registered in Ireland, but given those not yet registered, estimates are of up to 2,000 children. See homeschool-ireland.com

The National Education (Welfare) Board is responsible for registering and assessing home-schooling families in Ireland. See newb.ie/parent_guardian/education_outside_

school.asp or tel: 01-8738736 for information on how to register and what assessments entail.

There are no formal qualifications needed to teach a child at home, and no set schedule is necessary as at a recognised school – sit-down tuition might take up one to two hours per day.

The Home Education Network (Hen) holds its annual conference on August 4th-7th in Mount Melleray Scout Centre, Co Waterford, with workshops and talks for children and adults. It’s a chance for families considering home-schooling to meet those doing it. Information on accommodation, events and cost will be available in the coming months on henireland.org.

LEARNING CURVE: THE HOME-SCHOOL TIMETABLE

A week in the life of one home-schooling family

MONDAY:Reading at the local library.

TUESDAY: Hen get-together in Thomastown, Kilkenny, with crafts, book club, science experiments, music and board games.

WEDNESDAY: Learning to plant and cultivate

at the Cherry Orchard Community Garden; making pizzas at home.

THURSDAY: Hen get-together and French class at Imaginosity Dublin Children’s Museum; yoga.

FRIDAY: Trip to Dublin’s National Aquatic Centre; reading lessons using software and phonics packs at home.