Irish parents who home-school: 'It isn't something we decided to do on a whim'
New figures show increasing numbers of parents are choosing to take their children out of the school system and educate them at home.
It may have happened 14 years ago, but Nora Duggan has vivid memories of the day when she opened the door of her Laois home to find a garda standing there.
We wanted to know why her daughter, Síle, then seven years old, was not attending the local primary school in Portarlington. Nora and her husband Seamus had taken Síle out of the school some time previously so convinced were they that conventional education was not for their child, and now a police officer had been summoned to see if they would return her to the school.
"I explained to him that it was our right as Irish citizens to educate our child as we saw fit," Nora says today, "and he said he'd go away and look into it. We never saw him again."
Síle was schooled at home until after her Junior Cert and now her siblings Tómas and Mary-Sue are being taught by Nora and Seamus in the same fashion.
"It worked for Síle," Nora says, "and it is working for both Tómas (7) and Mary-Sue (5) too. And I think it would work for other families if they were aware that it's their right to educate their children at home if they want to. A lot of people are still not aware of that situation."
And yet, increasing numbers of Irish parents are opting to school their kids at home. Latest figures show that 1,090 children are registered as being home-schooled today. The figure five years ago was 699. And those figures may be conservative: Nora Duggan believes some parents don't register their children as being home-schooled despite providing their education that way.
That Tusla, the body established to safeguard children who are in vulnerable situations such as domestic abuse, are charged with keeping tabs on home-schooled children is a source of irritation for many parents, Nora believes. "Any parent that I've ever met who has home-schooled their children has their very best interests at heart. They've thought about it long and hard. It isn't something they have decided to do on a whim."
For her, the decision stemmed from Síle's dislike of school both in Dublin - where the family are from - and in Laois, their adopted home. "There was a period of about six months where she liked it, but for most of the time up to the age of seven she was very unhappy. She just couldn't settle and we had to look into other possibilities.
"One day, I had a bad experience with the teacher and I rang my husband and he said, 'take her out'. It was then we did research into home-schooling and saw that, even at that stage, it wasn't such a strange thing to do. Plenty of families were doing it in Ireland already. We haven't looked back since."
Saffron Wells (14) has never been to a conventional school. She has been taught at her home in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, by her parents since day one and, her mother Rose believes, she has benefited greatly from the non-conventional approach.
"My approach is 'unschooling'," she says. "It's about creating an environment that's a world away from the rigidity of the classroom. I've never tried to replicate schools - we'd never sit down for 45 minutes to do maths, for instance. We wouldn't structure a day like that, but the opportunities for learning present themselves at all opportunities - in the car, at the dinner table, anywhere really."
Rose freely admits that she disliked school herself and would love to have been home-schooled had the option existed in her youth. "If you think back to your school days, the stuff that you remember is the stuff you were interested in. I did physics for my Leaving Cert, but don't remember anything about it because there were other areas that I was passionate about - I went on to study art in college - and yet I had been required to take on subjects that weren't of interest to me. The thing I've seen with my daughter is how innate that love of learning is. They're very curious about the world from an early age and they can absorb so much."
Saffron, Rose insists, has never expressed a hankering to go to school. "This approach works for her," she says. "It allows her to focus on the areas that really appeal to her."
Such talk surely flies in the face of an education system heavily weighed towards state exams and Leaving Cert points? "Well, there's no obligation to sit the exams," Rose says, "but many home-schooled children do and they get on fine in them."
Síle Duggan did her Leaving Cert after attending the local school in Portarlington for fifth and sixth year. She said she slotted into classroom life relatively seamlessly, but is convinced she would have done better in the exams had she persisted with the home-schooling. "It would be frustrating to have to stick with the same topic longer than I wanted to," she says. "There was a lot of repetition - I just wasn't used to that."
Now 21, she feels the experience of being home-schooled inform the person she is today. "I don't feel pressure to be aiming towards a particular profession or to have a certain college course behind me. I'd love to teach English in other countries and see some of the world. We'll see."
She studied science in college in Athlone but dropped out after a year. She now works in a retail job at the Kildare Village shopping outlet and says she is happy with her lot. She wouldn't hesitate, she says, to home-school any children she might have in the future. "Definitely," she says. "It was a great experience."
But not everyone who has gone down this route is as enthused. One mother, who declines to be named, believes home-schooling only suits some children - and some parents. "I tried it with my two for a couple of years but found I was constantly questioning myself about whether or not I was doing the right thing. I didn't know whether they were picking certain things up too quickly and other topics not at all. I tried to structure the day and do formal lessons but found it difficult and there were moments where my children were in the mood to learn and others where they simply wanted to mess.
"I was also concerned that my children were missing out on the social aspect of being in school. I'd meet other parents who were home-schooling and I often got the impression that they had had bad experiences in school themselves, with bullying and so on, and didn't want their children to experience the same. I can understand that, but keeping them felt too much like cotton-wool parenting for my liking."
Another parent who does not wish to be named enjoyed the three years she spent home-educating her children and only stopped because economic circumstances necessitated that she work outside the home. "My husband's pay was badly cut in the recession and I had no option but to take on a part-time job," she says. "I knew from the start that I wouldn't be able to combine work with schooling my children so I got them into a local school, which I'm relieved to say, they like going to. But it frustrates me to see them so bored with large chunks of the curriculum and some of the homework isn't all that different to what I had to do when I was in school myself. And it pains me that for economic reasons I don't get to spend as much time during the week with my children as I would like to.
"I wouldn't discourage any family who wants to go down this route, but I think it's very important that at least one parent is completely free during the day and has no work commitments outside the home. And while they don't need to be teachers, they should have an interest in learning and oodles of patience.
"I'd also say that if you're going to do it, you have to start from when the child is of age to enrol in school - and not when they've got used to school life and made friends there. That said, I did meet a large number of parents who found themselves home-schooling because their child was being bullied and they felt they had no other choice."
Rose Wells, who is contact officer of the Home Education Network - a resource for parents and children who opt for home-schooling - says there are several reasons why 'unschooling' is a feature of life today.
"Bullying in school is certainly a factor," she says, adding that cyber-bullying ensures that the misery experienced is no longer just confined to school hours. "But usually, it's parents who feel let down by the school system and feel their child could be educated in a much more stimulating, fun environment."
Other parents who are avowed atheists resent having to send their children into an education system where, in the estimation of the lobby group Equate, some 97pc of schools are run by religious orders, the majority of them Catholic.
"Those schools are allowed to not admit a child, if their religion doesn't match that of the school," says Equate's Michael Barron. "A recent survey shows one-in-five people in Ireland know of somebody who baptised their children in order to get them into a particular school. We believe that in a 21st-century modern education system, that should no longer be the case."
Nora Duggan, meanwhile, says fewer parents would opt to home-school if there were a greater range of schools available, especially those who take the sort of holistic approach to eduction that can be found in Finland, a country she has lived in.
"Here, so much of it is about sitting still at desks," she says. "It's a system that would have been traumatic for Tómas. He's been diagnosed with Asperger's - and scoliosis [an abnormal curvature of the spine] too, so it's very difficult for him to sit still.
"I don't want to run down conventional schooling and for some, it works very well. But we've found a better way for us - and it's really good that we have this choice and educate our children our way."
Home schooling in numbers
There are 1,090 children registered as home-schooled in this country - a figure comprising those of both primary and secondary school-going age.
There has been a substantial increase in the number of registered home educated pupils - the figure was 699 just five years ago.
Despite having by far the largest population of any county, Dublin (157) is in second place to Cork (167) when it comes to children being home-schooled. It's thought that the greater choice of schools in the capital, coupled with the cost of living, which often requires both parents to work full-time, is the reason why Dublin has a disproportionately small number of children being educated at home.
In Monaghan, just three children are being home-schooled.
There is a substantial gender differential being taught at home, with far more boys than girls being educated this way. 605 are male and 485 are female.