Every weekday morning, at about 10am, eleven-year-old Dorothy starts her school day. She checks a small toy blackboard in the kitchen. The to-do list can include anything from Greek mythology, chess, sign language or Shakespeare.
Learning mostly involves chatting with her mother, researching topics on her own or taking part in online classes and educational games. There is no classroom, curriculum or timetable – but she’s always keen to finish by 3pm so she can hang out with her friends who go to regular school.
"Covid and the school closures gave us a chance to have a go at homeschooling," says her mother Liz Hudson, a self-employed books editor in Rathfarnham, Dublin. "We're one of the families which said, 'we're not going back'. It ended up resolving a lot of problems and stresses that we had. Its been been wonderful. For the time being, at least, we're delighted."
At home we could see she was finding a learning style that suited her better than learning things off by heart or being told how good she was or wasn't
Before the pandemic, she says her daughter often arrived home stressed or in tears. Looking back, Hudson says, she seemed to be trying to contain her naturally boisterous personality.
“She’s a joker, she has lots of energy. When she works at home, she often bounces on a ball. That wouldn’t go down well in a classroom, of course,” she says. “I’ve no animosity or hard feelings about school or teachers, they do an amazing job, but at home we could see she was finding a learning style that suited her better than learning things off by heart or being told how good she was or wasn’t. . . it wasn’t healthy for my child. When you see your child diminishing themselves, it does worry you.”
Hudson describes the learning environment at home as child-led, with some adult intervention. While Dorothy can focus on what she enjoys – she’s big into houseboats and chess at the moment – her mum introduces some lessons on Irish and maths. “A lot of the time it’s what you might call the Socratic method: it’s conversations or asking questions. We cover a lot of ground that way. It’s catering to her interests, while staying conscious over what constitutes a good education. . . learning can take place anywhere,” Hudson says.
A small but growing portion of children were homeschooled before the pandemic hit. Today, it is one of the fastest growing forms of education in Ireland.
The number of officially registered homeschooled children has climbed by almost 25 per cent since the pandemic began, to 1,825. The real figure, however, is estimated to be closer to 4,000. A surge in applications since schools closed during the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a backlog of almost 2,000 applications from families waiting to be registered.
Home education is regulated by Tusla, the child and family agency. Parents who wish to educate their child at home must be assessed. However, once a parent simply notifies the agency and receives an acknowledgement, they can commence homeschooling.
So, who are these children? Many parents who have opted to homeschool their children say they are avoiding anxiety, bullying, exam pressure or stress. Others have concerns about their children’s additional educational needs and the capacity of schools to meet them.
More recently, many families say they have health concerns linked to Covid or had positive experiences of homeschooling during school closures and wanted it to continue.
Learning methods tend to range from the more traditional approach of using textbooks and study schedules to "unschooling", a philosophy popularised by US teacher and author John Holt. In his book How Children Fail, he argued that children naturally want to learn in the same way as they learn to walk and talk.
If there’s a stereotype for homeschoolers, it tends to veer from religious, anti-state conservatives to hippy, alternative families who want to opt out of the system.
“I probably had those stereotypes before,” says Hudson. “In general, though, you meet very free-thinking rather than hippy families. They are thoughtful and interesting and want the best for their kids. They have a curiosity over how education and learning works. . . I’ve maybe been on one Zoom call where there was talk of the ‘scamdemic’. That was one out of hundreds. In general, it’s a very supportive community.”
One of most common questions homeschoolers say they are asked is around the impact on their children’s socialisation. Parents, however, say there is a very active home education network where families meet up regularly with others.
“It is amazingly social, far more so than when she was in school. . . in school it was very constricted. Children stayed in their class groups. She hated that. She loved mixing with others. That’s what she does nowadays, whether with other groups or homeschoolers or with local kids in the neighbourhood. She’s very sociable and confident.”
Changes in technology have made it easier to teach out of the classroom. Hudson says she uses outschool.com which provides online classes in a wide variety of subjects. For maths, they use prodigygame.com, a free learning game for children, and the Khan Academy, a learning resource. For literacy, she uses the US-based All About Reading programme and for Irish they have been using a free DCU course as well as TG4.
I worried that he'd be institutionalised. There are up to 30 kids in a class. Everyone has to fit into the system
While catering to children's education needs is more straightforward when they are younger, how do families fare as they grow older? Catherine Monaghan and her son Theo (16) are coming to the end of their homeschool journey.
He has been educated at home from the beginning. After several years in Australia, where there is an established home-education community, they moved to Ashford, Co Wicklow. In Monaghan's case, she says she had a gut feeling that she didn't want to send him to school.
“I just was really enjoying being with him. And he was so happy. And we were having a great time. It was really nice. . . by sending him to school, I worried that he’d be institutionalised. There are up to 30 kids in a class. Everyone has to fit into the system. That’s grand for lots of people, but I just didn’t want that for him. I was in a position to provide something different. I just wanted him to have the freedom to be himself.”
In terms of further study options as children grow older, Monaghan says there are ample opportunities to go to third level which don’t always require a Leaving Cert. Theo, for example, is interested in acting and is involved in a local youth theatre group. He has been accepted on to an acting course in a local further education college next September. Monaghan says this is a great pathway for home-educated children, especially, as it avoids the pressure of the CAO points race.
“Many aren’t aware of these options and the pressure is huge in the Leaving Cert. There are other routes, for sure. It’s not the be-all and end-all. There is probably a further education course for you. . . a lot of home-ed kids go that pathway and it works out great. They spend a year or two doing something they’re interested in. It’s a really good introduction to third level.”
Theo agrees that homeschooling hasn’t been an isolating experience. He says it has allowed him to hang out with a diverse group of young people who are younger and older than him. He says it also allows younger people to express themselves in ways that wouldn’t be possible in most schools.
He jokes that on one occasion they arrived at a local meet-up for homeschoolers, but weren’t sure if they were in the right location. Then he saw a boy his own age with long red hair down almost to his waist. “Oh, we’re probably in the right place, alright,” he joked.
Looking back, his mother says the number-one benefit has been family relationships.
“We know each other really well. We don’t get on 100 per cent of the time, but the communication is great. We’re used to being around each other. A lot of the time there’s this assumption that teenagers are going to care a lot more about what their friends think than what their parents think. Or that teenagers didn’t want to hang out with their parents. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
He had anxiety and specific needs, but I was able to meet them in a one-to-one environment at home
Home education, however, involves financial sacrifices. Generally, one parent has to stay at home in order to facilitate it. Many say luxuries are sacrificed, although there is also the freedom of holidays when others are in school. Lorna Tormey from Dublin gave up her job as a buyer for UPC – now Virgin Media – when she decided to home educate her son and daughter, now aged 11 and seven.
She doesn’t miss the stress of getting children up at 7am or having her upset son “peeled away” from her at the school. “There are very few households where things are not stressful in the mornings,” she says. “That doesn’t always work well for highly sensitive kids, or those with additional needs. There is so much to be said for a slower introduction to the day.”
Tormey took her son out of school when he was six because she felt the school was unable to meet his additional needs. Waiting lists for assessments stretch to months or years, while he was also suffering from a growing sense of anxiety.
“School can feel oppressive for some children. . . There was a massive relief of not having to go back to school. He had anxiety and specific needs, but I was able to meet them in a one-to-one environment at home, rather than in a room with 30 children.”
Tormey says she feels lucky to live in Ireland, where home education is protected under the Constitution. This is in contrast to Germany, where it is illegal, and France, where it is being restricted under new laws prompted by concerns over extremism and radicalisation. Anecdotally, there has been an increase in French nationals moving to Ireland in recent months to homeschool their children.
When I think of the amount I spent on childcare, and all that time bringing her to school, I kind of wish I knew earlier how homeschooling would be
Article 42 of the Constitution states that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family. It goes on to say that parents are free to “provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State” and that the State “shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State”.
The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 specifies that all children receive a “certain minimum education’’. Tusla says it monitors this by inspecting families to measure verbal skills development, literacy and numeracy.
“I’m grateful this is protected. It was the best option for us. I’m not anti-schools, but I just wish there was more choice and there was less of a one-size-fits-all approach.”
As for Liz Hudson, her only regret is not switching to homeschooling earlier .
“When I think of the amount I spent on childcare, and all that time bringing her to school, I kind of wish I knew earlier how homeschooling would be. . . I know that for some children and families, they are better off in schools. I’ve no gripe with it, but when I see other children thriving and happy outside it, it makes you realise that’s it not for everyone.
“If you have the freedom to take ownership of your kids’ education or health and wellbeing, it does no one any harm. It’s not threatening anyone.”