Education in India is changing, parental expectations are changing, and parents are voting with their feet. During the last 9 months, since the first lockdown was announced, schools have been closed to students. That means more than 300 million students have missed school or college and learning has been affected. Many students are not receiving any work, some a minimal amount and some, a good portion of the curriculum. But in all cases, parents have woken up and are looking at alternatives to regular schooling.
Financial pressure has also been an issue. Parents receiving just 50% of their salaries or even losing their jobs has meant that their education choices have come under pressure. Many can no longer afford the education provision they had previously opted for. Online learning has become the new buzzword, with schools succeeding to varying degrees, not just in the provision but in the ability of families to access it. Schools providing live lessons require the student to have a suitable device available at that exact time. Lots of parents have got only one smartphone and that goes to work with the adult during the day. Financial pressure means an additional device cannot be purchased and so the child misses the lessons. Alternatively, the device is available but internet provision is sparse or non-existent. Parents are therefore looking at ditching traditional schooling altogether. Many feel that if they have to help their children with their online lessons anyway, why continue to pay the school? Why not just do it alone and save some money? And so, parents are turning to the idea of homeschooling.
Homeschooling itself is not a new concept, some families have chosen this option for years. Even in India, 25 years ago, there were parents homeschooling their children. Although at that time, it was relatively unknown, it is becoming a much more popular alternative to regular schooling now.
Homeschooling has traditionally been chosen for a number of reasons including religious, dissatisfaction with local schools, transient jobs, cost, children with special needs or who don’t learn in the traditional way. The greatest advantage of homeschooling is its flexibility in timing, curriculum, level and focus. A homeschooled child is the centre of attention and therefore the provision can be tailor-made to his/her needs.
But what actually is homeschooling? Is it just school at home, same books, same timetable? Or is it something completely different altogether? The answer depends on who you ask as different homeschoolers do it in different ways. Alternative terminologies are often used and have slightly different meanings. Home education differs from homeschooling; learning happens ‘at home’ but not in a traditional curriculum-based manner. ‘Home education turned out to be a misnomer, as we were hardly ever home when my son was younger,’ remembers Lucy Kanachowski.
Unschooling is a similar concept to home education where the child dictates the type of learning that happens and is allowed to progress freely as per interests and desires. Debbie Rodrigues recollects that she and her husband ‘set out to be the providers of a platform that enabled freedom of learning, exploration and learning out of curiosity’. Both home education and unschooling make use of resources in the real world, field trips and real-life experiences dominate over textbook-simulated, abstract lessons. ‘We can be creative about learning… we can perform experiments which may be deemed too ‘risky’ in a larger class,’ Miranda Kelly remarked.
So, if a parent is thinking about homeschooling as an option, what do they need to consider? With all the free and multiplying online provision now available, homeschooling is looking like an easier and easier option. But is it?
The way someone approaches homeschooling will be guided mainly by their reason for making this choice. If they are simply trying to save money then continuing to use the same books that were provided by the school may be sufficient. If they chose to homeschool because they didn’t like the ethos or atmosphere (maybe their child was being bullied) of the local schools, in this case, the curriculum may not be their major concern either. Rather the atmosphere of the home and the people the child is exposed to becomes the main focus.
Many parents, especially now, are leaving schools because they are not happy with the academic provision, be it the curriculum itself or the delivery of it. Schools are meant to be experts in curriculum delivery, providing the necessary provision for children in ways that make it easy for children to learn. But large class numbers, lack of space and teachers without training and motivation to provide life-long learning rather than questions and answers from the textbook, means that maybe schools are not doing the best they can. The explosion of online provision means much more variety of expertise is available, but the challenge now is to know which is effective and which are just fads that someone has created because they too need to earn money at this time.
This is not an easy skill, parents who decide to homeschool need to be able to assess the level of their child, along with their potential and the ways in which they learn best, then they need to match this with what is available, be it on or off-line.
Homeschooling is not an easy alternative, it takes hard work and dedication from the whole family, children and parents, and extended family too if they are local. Learning happens 24/7, especially when led by curious children. When the whole family does come together in support, it brings many advantages. ‘We can learn and grow together as a family. The children learn the responsibility of chores alongside their schoolwork and we often use teaching the younger children as an opportunity for the older children to review basic, building-block principles,’ affirms Miranda Kelly. Many home educators also join together to form communities wherein they help one another with subject expertise, skills and encouragement. It also means children get peers to socialise with and also become confident conversing with adults of differing ages.
One concern for many who chose the homeschooling option is ‘what about exams?’ This is one reason why homeschooling in the pre-primary and primary years is much more common than for secondary students. In our exam-focused society, it seems that this is the ultimate goal, although slowly this is beginning to change. For now, there are a few options. It is possible to do the NIOS (National Indian Open School) exams or IGCSE (International General Certificate of Education) exams provided by Cambridge. The NIOS is cheap and becoming more and more recognised as a valid qualification, IGCSE is expensive and as a private student, as yet, still unrecognised by many Indian universities, even though valid across many countries around the world. Kanachowski remembers how her son, now 20, ‘didn’t do any formal exams but has now been away at college for a year to learn more about blacksmithing and metalwork. Music is his passion and he has fallen in love with traditional Irish folk music and plays several instruments competently.’
For many, I suspect, this choice to homeschool is temporary. The world is unstable right now, we don’t know when the next lockdown maybe, or when schools will reopen. And if they do what about the safety of the students, what provision will be made for handwashing, physical distancing etc.? It seems it is this worry that has led many parents to look at home-schooling as an option for this year or maybe the next few years. It is particularly essential that these parents know what they are doing. If they wish to just bide their time and teach at home what a school usually teaches in school, then this has to remain a temporary option with reintegration as the goal. But home education or unschooled education requires time, effort and a love of learning in the parent. Reintegration back into the system is then not the goal, but a life of constant exploration, wonder and learning is.
The fact that so many parents are considering the homeschooling option, should also make educators wake up and ask ‘what can we do?’ Schools need to look very carefully at their curricula and how they can be adapted to life-long learning and the development of skills, not just the retention of knowledge. How can schools begin to more effectively teach each child, rather than just deliver the curriculum? The ethos of schools and the care of students, the elimination of bullying and the promotion of kindness need to become priorities. Schooling isn’t just about passing exams; it’s about learning to live in harmony and celebrate our differences. Schooling is about ensuring that every child reaches their potential, whatever it may be.
About the authors:
Joy Townsend, Director, Academic Innovation, St. Willibrord International School
Willibrord George, Trustee, St. George Educational Trust
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