Irish parents who are choosing to homeschool their children- 'We realised pretty quickly that this was just right for us'
With homeschooling on the rise, Andrea Mara talks to parents who choose to opt out of the crèche and school runs
When the topic of homeschooling is discussed, the same comments tend to crop up over and over again: "It's not fair on the kids"; "Children need socialisation"; and "How will they ever make friends?"
As most parents opt for mainstream schools, homeschooling can seem like a criticism of the education system. But with almost 1,300 children in Ireland on the home education register - nearly double the figure from 2011 - it must have something going for it. So what exactly does homeschooling involve, and why do parents decide to do it in the first place?
"Homeschooling was always in my head, but we didn't know anyone doing it," says mum-of-six Emily Rainsford-Ryan. "Our eldest son started school, but was very anxious there. By this stage, we had met a couple of home educating families and started to build up a network of support and friends. We took our son out after first class, initially for six months to see if home educating would 'work' for us, and also to alleviate some of his school stress. We realised pretty quickly that this was just right for us."
Kate Roche had a similar experience. "We took our third child out of school at the end of her junior infant year as she had had a very unsettled time and repeating the year wasn't an option at the school. Our plan was to send her back in the following September, but the difference in having her home, both in terms of her emotional wellbeing and her enthusiasm for learning, led us to explore the option of home educating."
For Margaret Quaid, the seed was sown a little earlier - back when she was working as a primary school teacher, and her eldest child was 18 months old. "I heard an interview on the radio about homeschooling with a Canadian lady who was living in Wexford. I got in touch with her and then with HEN - the Home Education Network - and that's how we started."
At first, she continued working. "My husband took a year off - but he never swept the floor or did anything! So eventually I said, 'Come on - back to work', and I gave up my job."
The irony of a primary school teacher choosing to homeschool is not lost on Margaret, but she doesn't think it was necessarily a help. "It was a disadvantage really - I had friends who were amazing, and weren't book orientated at all. They'd see a butterfly and then go learn about butterflies - they were so organic. I was going back to the books all the time at first. But you have to be spontaneous - if the butterfly is gone, you've lost the moment."
Those of us on the outside often wonder about the perceived challenges of homeschooling - how tiring it must be, how difficult it must be to know the curriculum. But those who do it see the positives first-hand, particularly the lack of stress. "It's a very relaxed way of life," says Emily. "And it's more of a living philosophy than an educational system. Things are mostly on a very even keel, with no highs or lows. There are no holidays from 'learning' - it's just something they do all the time."
Kate Roche, who like Emily has six children, finds she has more time to get to know her brood. "There's no homework taking over family time, and spending more time with the children, we know them so much better and enjoy a better relationship with them and get to see them developing better relationships with each other as siblings."
What many people don't realise is that there is no obligation to follow the primary school curriculum or any curriculum at all. In Emily's house, they don't have a set syllabus, though she says she has one eye on what is covered at different stages in school. "We technically 'unschool' - an education method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. We didn't set out to unschool, it's just was the way that worked for us."
With her younger children Anna (3) and James (5), the focus is on the kind of everyday activities that go on in most homes around the country. "We read a lot, we do lots of drawings, lots of role play - Anna plays extensive games with her dolls doing all the voices and scenarios. We do baking and Anna and James chop soft vegetables like courgettes and mushrooms. We play with water and sand and go for walks to pick blackberries. They do a lot of arts and crafts themselves; we have loads of materials, so I just let them at it. Giving them free rein rather than me telling them what to do is far greater for their imagination and enjoyment."
Margaret, who has eight children, says she does a combination of homeschooling and unschooling. "We do academic stuff and if my children ever want to go to school I want them to fit in. Unschooling is child-led and yes, some days, we do whatever they want to do. But other days I say, 'Come on now, let's do some maths.'"
It sounds very relaxing compared to the non-stop crèche- and school-run life most of us juggle, but surely there are some downsides? "It is tiring at times, but I adore being at home with them," says Margaret. "Sometimes I do think I could have been a vice principal by now - off wearing nice clothes, but really, I'd never give it up. Of course sometimes you reach your limit and you say 'I'm out of here' and you go for a walk with the dog, but the children are good and very cooperative."
And what about the "S question" as it's known in home education circles - do children miss out on socialisation? "'It's the question most often asked!" says Emily. "And I understand it. You do have to work on this to make it happen, it does take effort, especially initially until you build up your community of people. We are lucky as we have six children and there is always something happening and epic games being played. And we make an effort to meet with friends and family and to go to get-togethers and days out within HEN."
So for parents interested in homeschooling, how does it work - can anyone just opt to educate their children at home? "We are fortunate in Ireland that home education is very accessible and supported by the Irish Constitution," says Pauline O'Reilly, Public Relations Officer for HEN. "Children over the age of six are required to be registered with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Registration consists of filling out a form, followed by meeting with an assessor. In the vast majority of cases, there are no issues at all and parents report positive experiences from their meetings with assessors."
Tusla press officer Ruth McCourt explains what assessors look for. "When an application is received, Tusla assesses the level of education provided against the Department of Educations and Skills' minimum education guidelines. Tusla's assessment framework looks at a number of educational pillars proposed by the parent including, for example, mathematical skills, literacy, social education and creativity."
And with today's plentiful online resources, homeschooling is easier than ever. "With access to the internet you don't need a wealth of knowledge," says Kate Roche, "but the ability to access and appropriately apply the knowledge you require in any given situation. We see ourselves as facilitators, not teachers."
Emily Rainsford-Ryan sums it up. "The lovely thing is this is all done very naturally and easily; it's in no way forced and it's completely self-motivated, and it's fascinating to watch. I feel this whole home education life is a great honour and joy to witness."
FIVE famous people who were homeschooled
Tennis stars VENUS and SERENA WILLIAMS were both homeschooled by their father so that they could focus on tennis.
CS LEWIS, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was homeschooled in Belfast until the age of nine.
Singer-songwriter TAYLOR SWIFT was homeschooled from the age of 14.
Actor RYAN GOSLING was homeschooled for a year by his mother, who gave up her job to do so.
AGATHA CHRISTIE, the best-selling novelist in history, was homeschooled by her father when she was growing up in Devon at the end of the 19th century.