The luxury of home-schooling

loading Making dioramas.

Tailored to the particular child’s needs, home-schooling is considered by many parents to be the best option – even in Singapore.

The time comes when all parents have to begin thinking of their child’s schooling. For many, school itself is not the choice. Rather, which school it’s going to be is. For a growing minority in Singapore, however, choosing to go to school at all is also a matter for deliberation.

Ten years ago when I first started educating my children more formally at home, it was a bit of a curiosity. Well known for its hothouse education system that produced top scholars who could hold their heads high in institutions all over the world, Singapore Tailored to the particular child’s needs, home-schooling is considered by many parents to be the best option – even in Singapore. By Laotse Sacker was a good bet for those parents who wanted their children to do well academically. Why risk all that simply to mollycoddle your child at home with your half-baked ideas about what childhood is, what school is, what society is, etc.?

It is a serious issue and requires serious thought. Do we keep our child at home because we are afraid? Afraid of pressure, afraid of bullying, afraid of our children mixing with the wrong sort, afraid of our child’s brilliance not being recognised, afraid of a pluralist society, etc.?

Or do we keep our children at home because we are confident we can provide them with an education that is tailored to not just our strengths, but theirs too?

Home-schooling is a luxury. It requires at least one parent to invest a significant part of his or her day – every day – to the child. The typical home-school family in Singapore is middle class, has tertiary education and can survive on one income. This already makes the home-school family quite a rare organism.

However, as with so many communities today, online media are helping families to link up and share resources in a way unimaginable until quite recently. The modern homeschooling mum spends a great deal of the first few years researching resources and curricula online. This can be very selfaffirming. Quite quickly one realises that there isn’t such a great secret to education, that there is a plethora of material out there to help one, and that there are many, many other families doing the same thing. This lightens the situation considerably.

Biology studies.

To educate your child at home in Singapore is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Since the Compulsory Education Act was implemented in 2003, all citizens are required to attend school throughout their primary years from the age of 7. To get exemption from this Act, a special request needs to be processed through the Ministry of Education (MOE), providing acceptable reasons for keeping one’s child out of the national education system and providing a detailed education overview for the primary school years together with aims and objectives for all standard school subjects. These include English and “Mother Tongue” (Malay, Mandarin or Tamil). All home-schooling citizens are also required to pass the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which is usually taken in the year the child turns 12 years old.

Volcano studies.

Additionally, all home-schooling families must make an annual report on their child’s progress as well as receive home visits from an MOE representative. In recent years home-schooled Primary 4 students have also been required to sit a simple MOE exam in mathematics, science, English and Mother Tongue. This has met particular resistance from families as no such requirement is made of school-going children, and many families feel that this interrupts the flow of their studies, especially those who haven’t chosen a curriculum path that corresponds with the national schools. The Ministry’s position, however, is that this exercise allows them to sieve for those families who are struggling to provide their children with a basic education.

Given the level of involvement of the MOE, the gentle rise of home-schooling is a strong indicator of how valued this option is by families. Applications for exemption from the Compulsory Education Act come to the MOE steadily throughout the year and the number of home-schooled students sitting for their PSLE is usually between 40 and 50 every year.

And given the high standing that national education enjoys, it surprises many that there are families who opt to keep their children at home at all. These families’ reasons are many: there are those for whom school was the first option, but who then resorted to home-schooling as a last resort. These families usually report unhappy experiences at school or that their child had special needs or health issues that weren’t being met by the system.

Some families have had their feet in both camps for a while, sending their children to school, but then supplementing this with further studies at home. Many of these families then decide that they are more efficient and can do a better job themselves. This isn’t necessarily a case of kiasu-ism (one-upmanship), but more a matter of resignation to the fact that when there are 30 kids in a class, a lot of time is wasted, and not on play, socialising and quiet and reflective time, but on keeping order, waiting for one’s turn, queuing and travel.

HS Concert 2015.

For the majority of home-schooling families, however, it is something we were introduced to at an early stage through our reading, family, friends or religious groups. We’ve had time to ponder our reasons, find like-minded families and plan our curricula. For these families, their days are often quite leisurely, with studies done at home in the mornings and then social, artistic, physical and recreational activities in the afternoon.

“School education emphasises too much on mathematics and language skills. Kids should dance, sing, draw, act, play instruments and have time to play freely and be out in nature. Once a child steps into a local school here, life and learning stops,” my good friend Linda Khi will often say. Khi's philosophy is to “Let kids play more, sleep more and eat proper meals.”

Many home-schooling families are concerned that schools are too pressurised and that the regular tests and assessments are interfering with their child’s natural learning stages.

“Being out of the constant exam and testtaking pressure of primary school allows us to take things at our own pace,” mother of five Sukesy Mattar tells me. “We get to spend more time with our children. I have the flexibility to decide when and how much I’d like my children to be exposed to media and popular culture. Home-schooling also gives us the freedom to decide our ‘school’ terms and holidays around our family’s needs and circumstances.”

Home-schooling parents naturally vary in their circumstances and in their reasons for choosing this path. Many, like Mattar and Khi, have a background in education and this does add to their confidence at the outset. However, even parents like me with no teaching degree find that it’s much like any vocation; you learn on the job.

And it is a wonderfully enriching job. You get to spend time with those people who matter most in the world to you at a time in their lives which is incredibly formative. You can tailor resources to suit your child, supporting her strengths and adapting to her weaknesses. If she likes to be out in a natural setting, you can take out your binoculars and notepads and head to the jungle. If she likes to read above everything else, you can head to the library and pick out every book imaginable on the theme of the month. She’s a chemistry whizz? Not an issue. Let her do college-level work; she’s not stressing out anyone else in the class. She is nine and still hasn’t read a chapter book? Great! That means she will have observation and social skills beyond the norm. Work on them. Get her out there researching and presenting her work in ways that work for her.

Family values vary a great deal, but a recurring theme for families who educate at home is that they want to take the emphasis away from exams in their child’s primary years and focus on the art of learning, not just academically but socially too. Time spent in nature, writing, reading and playing for pleasure, or simply doing family housework together is all time spent learning needed skills such as having the ability to observe, to be inquisitive, to be focused and to solve a problem on the spot.

Laotse Sacker is a major figure in Singapore’s home-schooling community. She is teacherparent to her 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

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