Home is where the art is – and the maths and history
The number of children educated outside school has grown by 34pc. Kim Bielenberg reports
Some parents set up classrooms at home with timetables, elaborate lesson plans and text books.
Others let their children learn for themselves, and merely give them encouragement.
Homeschooling has grown in popularity in Ireland in recent years, as parents choose to take their kids out of school, or never send them at all.
Figures supplied to The Irish Independent show the number of children registered as homeschoolers has increased by 34pc since 2010.
The topic of homeschooling has attracted controversy in the past few days after a Carlow couple were fined €2000 for failing to send two of their children to school.
Monica O'Connor and Eddie O'Neill from Tullow, Co Carlow, who have home educated all of their six children, were found guilty of not sending two of them to local schools since November of last year.
The couple were summonsed after they refused to register their two children with the National Educational Welfare Board.
The board registers children as homeschoolers and carries out assessments to ensure that they are being educated.
Mr O'Neill is himself a teacher at Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare.
The constitution specifically states that parents are free to provide education in their homes.
However, under legislation they are required to register them, and it was a refusal by the Tullow couple to do this that led to their fine.
Miss O'Connor told The Irish Independent: "For us it's about upholding our constitutional right. We don't feel that we should have to jump through hoops in order to get our rights as citizens of the state."
Although parents have to register and go through an assessment process, Irish legislation is regarded as quite liberal for homeschoolers by comparison with other countries. In Germany, homeschooling is banned, and it is heavily restricted in France.
Ciara Webster, spokeswoman for the Home Education Network, a group that brings families together, said parents home educate for a variety of reasons.
"I would say in about half the cases the kids might have suffered in school and the parents decide to take them out. There might be a specific problem with bullying or a teacher.
"They find that they get on so well homeschooling that they want to continue with it," said Ms Webster.
"The other half start homeschooling from the very beginning, because they like the idea and know people who do it."
Homeschoolers tend to come from across the political spectrum. Some parents want to avoid any kind of interference by the state, while others want to ensure that their children have a Christian upbringing.
Ciara Webster, who has homeschooled her daughters Clara and Aoibh from the start in Co Wexford, said: "I really like the Montesorri approach, where it is self-directed.
"They get to choose what they do. They don't follow any curriculum, but I make sure they learn maths, and I wanted to ensure they could read and write. Fortunately that came easy to them.
"They might use a couple of school books, but if they get bored with them we don't use them.
"For me the greatest benefit is that they have more time to develop their strengths.
"My eldest daughter plays two instruments, she loves drama and Irish dancing, and she reads a lot.
"Another homeschooling girl I know loves horse riding and photography. She has time to devote to that. She has won awards for her photographs.
"When they are homeschooling, kids can find out what they love to do. Then they can figure out how to make a career out of it."
The issue of socialisation is usually raised when homeschooling is mentioned, but there is little evidence that it has a negative effect.
A study by Canadian Centre for Home Education (CCHE) found that young adults who had been educated at home were more "socially engaged".
Ciara Webster said: "My kids are involved in a whole range of activities such as music and dancing.
"We love getting together with other families in the Home Education Network. That is how my kids have made their closest friends. There would be a group of up to 20 families that would meet locally once a fortnight."
So how does that National Education Welfare Board ensure that parents are giving their children a minimum education?
Emer Farrell, the board's officer responsible for homeschooling, said: "Parents apply to register and we have people with an educational background who carry out assessments.
"They meet the parents for a preliminary assessment and find out how education is being delivered."
Ms Farrell said: "We recognise that parents educate their children using all sorts of different methods. Some replicate a school at home with a timetable and text books.
"Others follow no curriculum, and the education is based on the interests of the child.
"One day it might, for example, involve going to the seashore and seeing what they find there."
In the vast majority of cases, children are registered after a preliminary assessment.
Over the past decade the board has only refused to register children after assessments in 24 cases.
Although 859 children are now registered, there are no precise figures on the number of children who are educated at home in the state.
A number of families either refuse to register their children on principle, or they may be unaware that it is a legal requirement.