Mom's the word: Home is where the school is
Why do children spend nearly as much time preparing for tests and being assessed as they do with actual learning? Why, when your kids become interested in a topic, do they have to switch to another subject, just because the curriculum says so? Why is it so difficult for them to catch up work missed? What if they don't fit in with the institutional culture - they're bored, demotivated, boxed in by their daily routine?
These are a few of the questions that came up in conversation with the Midvaal Homeschool Group, a loose affiliation of mothers who support and advise each other as they educate their children at home.
As most parents around the country resume the daily school run, more and more are acting on their misgivings about formal education and are opting to teach their children at home.
Once homeschooling was associated predominantly with highly religious pockets of society resisting outside influences; now it's entering the mainstream.
''It's definitely more acceptable," says Kathy le Cordeur, who runs the website homeschoolinfo.co.za. She began homeschooling her four children in the late 1990s. In those days, her decision was met with scepticism. People today are more open, even curious. And the number of homeschooling families has exploded.
Leendert van Oostrum, president of the Pestalozzi Trust, a legal defence fund for home education, is probably the best-informed person in the country when it comes to homeschooling figures. In 1995, when he was lobbying for home education to be provided for in the South African Schools Act, he estimated about 50 families were doing it. The 2011 census counted 56857.
Van Oostrum said that even though that figure is almost certainly inaccurate, it is useable, falling squarely within his own estimate of between 30000 and 100000 families. That means that, since 1996, when the act was adopted, there has been 1000% growth in the number of homeschoolers in South Africa. (Some estimates suggest up to 90% of home schoolers are not registered with the Department of Basic Education.)
Le Cordeur said she found scant resources and little support in 1996 when she began. Shirley Erwee, who lives in Hermanus and has been homeschooling for 16 years, said when she began, also in the late 1990s, she had to rely mostly on resources from the US.
Now there's a wide range of curricula to choose from, numerous resources, support groups, online help and discussion groups. It's an R800-million industry, according to Van Oostrum.
Erwee first considered homeschooling when she and her husband were granted custody of her five-year-old stepdaughter, who had been in day care since she was two. Erwee thought she'd take her out of school for six months to give her stability. Sixteen years later, she's homeschooled all six of her children.
Le Cordeur took it up because "it was the lifestyle she wanted", not because she was unhappy with her children's schooling. After reading up on homeschooling, she found herself most inspired by the possibilities of what she could do with her children rather than gripe about the state of public schools, politics or values.
Le Cordeur said it took her six months to realise that formal schooling's methods simply don't apply to homeschooling.
"It's not a school at home," she said.
It's an entirely different approach to education. Ultimately, there are as many different homeschooling practices as there are homeschoolers because you can pick and mix curricula and learning materials.
Le Cordeur said homeschoolers usually have children of different ages learning together. She preferred themed studies which helped keep her "classroom" coherent while allowing her to encourage her children with different levels of sophistication.
Learning does not always take place at a designated time and in a designated place, although most people I spoke to described a typical day involving a morning of "school" and an afternoon filled with sports, ballet, music and other extra-curricular activities. Everyone scoffed at the idea that home-schooled children are socially isolated and don't have opportunities to play sport.
Many homeschoolers insisted on the advantages of homeschooling not being restricted to a place and time.
Many enjoyed being able to follow their children's lead and dedicate as much time as necessary to a particular area, allowing them to progress at their own pace.
Some encouraged research rather than more traditional teaching.
A senior lecturer in the Department of Education at UCT with a special interest in family literacy, Clare Verbeek, said: "There is evidence that going deep into something that interests you has a positive effect."
Formal education "tends not to allow children to develop expertise".
The sentiment that "I can tell you what my kids know and what they don't know" seems to sum up the general attitude among homeschoolers.
"I know their strengths and weaknesses," said one mother, insisting that homeschooling's close one-on-one interactions make tests redundant.
Several felt formal education concentrates too much on assessment.
Many homeschool curricula include assessments, which can be helpful if you choose to use them.
Verbeek said homeschooling is viable "if you have the creativity and energy".
Le Cordeur said the "non-stop responsibility" can be physically and emotionally exhausting. But down to a person, they all found it enjoyable.
You don't need a teaching qualification to homeschool your children.
"Much of homeschooling takes place on a one-to-one basis," Verbeek said. "And much of teacher training involves how to teach and learn in groups."
Often, learning materials are designed specifically for parents who are not subject experts, and self-study plays a big role as children progress to the more senior levels, with parents facilitating.
Erwee said she found homeschooled children interacted particularly well with children of varying ages because they learn together.
"When in life do you only interact with people all of the same age?" she asked, adding that they interact more meaningfully with adults too.
Verbeek said a significant amount of learning, even among formally schooled children, takes place at home. You don't have to be homeschooling your children to create a rich learning environment.
"The kind of interaction between parents and kids affects their learning."
She said creating a positive emotional context for learning has been shown to have clear benefits, for example "cuddling your children while reading with them so the experience is emotionally satisfying".
Now that's something anyone can do.
Different Types of Homes Schooling
The Textbook Approach
Modelled closely on formal curricula and the structured learning that takes place in schools. The different curricula are arranged according to grades mirroring those of formal schools, and they come with workbooks, instruction manuals and assessments. Especially in the senior grades, they often allow for self-study. Most universities accept international qualifications such as the Cambridge International Examinations or the US SATs.
The Unschooling Method
This is a child-led method, which means what you teach depends on what interests the child . As a teacher, you facilitate and supervise your children's pursuit of their knowledge, giving them access to books and other learning resources, and moving to the next thing when their interest has been satisfied.
The Electric Approach
A blend of the previous two methods, selecting aspects of both when they are helpful and appropriate . The Unit Studies approach, which is the one Kathy Le Cordeur refers to, takes a theme, such as ancient Greece, and uses the topic to explore subjects, delving into history, geography, maths, art, literature, language and so on. This approach is particularly useful because it allows children of different ages and grades to learn together.
Home School Info South Africa www.homeschoolinfo.co.za
Footprints on our Land www.south-african-homeschool-curriculum.com
Home School Legal Defense Association www.hslda.org/hs/international/SouthAfrica/
Association for Homeschooling www.tuisskolers.org
The Pestalozzi Trust pestalozzi.org
The Eastern Cape Home Schooling Association echsa.net/
British International Distance College www.bicollege.co.za