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Imagine not having to deal with the daily school run, packing school lunches and tog bags, signing homework books and responding to the many notices requesting money for outings or fundraising. This is the reality for the 10 000 or so South African parents who home school and who start their day without the usual early morning mad rush.

Why home school?

People home school for very different reasons but by far the vast majority are Christians who believe that society is eroding family values and that peers rather than parents set the norms. They believe that the educational, ideological, cultural and religious slant of the State curriculum does not agree with the ideals they as parents have for their children.

Other parents home school because they have special needs children, their children may have an exceptionally high or low IQ, they may have special talents (e.g. sport or music) or have special learning needs. I have heard anecdotal reports of parents who home school a group of young surfers who spend a tremendous time honing their talents and who would miss a lot of schooling otherwise. I also spoke to a friend who was home schooled when his parents decided to sail around the world for a few years. There are also home schoolers in remote areas, for example farmers who do not wish to go the boarding school route.

Home schoolers emphasise life education in that learning is multidisciplinary and theme-based and parents are free to change the focus dependant on what is happening within the home: something found in the garden can become the day’s lesson. In large families older children help teach the younger ones concepts that they have mastered and much emphasis is placed on using the broader community as a resource, such as asking a family friend who is an engineer for help with a maths problem.

There is an unconventional approach called “unschooling” where parents do not follow a specific curriculum but rather a child’s special interest. Margie Erasmus followed this approach with her son, Matthew, who was extremely interested in space and nothing else, so she was able to fit all his subjects around this specific theme to keep him interested in learning. She was able to keep this up for about eighteen months but then changed to a more structured curriculum as she was also home schooling her other two children and found it too time consuming.

Because home schoolers have one-on-one attention they are able to complete the day’s school work in a relatively short space of time – two to three hours for primary school learners and three to four hours for secondary school learners – which leaves them free to pursue other interests.

Caroline Esterhuizen who home schools her children did so because as a teacher she felt she could do as good a job, if not better, than the state schools and her son was constantly sick in nursery school. “I couldn’t face the thought of letting go of my children and when I was pregnant with Lily found it the ideal time to try home schooling. I feel I know my children really well and we are much closer as a family as a result of home schooling. I am alert to what is happening in their lives and can pick up a problem immediately rather than letting a problem grow. We can go back to a problem area in school work and master it rather than be forced to carry on.”

Says Jo Madgwick: “Home schooling is not for everyone but I feel the greatest benefit is that I am my child’s role model rather than his peers and I control what he is being taught.”

Legal requirements

The South African Schools Act of 1996 makes specific provision for home schooling and it is legal provided that the parent responsible for teaching registers with the Department of Education. The parent needs to provide “supporting arguments to substantiate that education at home will be in the interest of the learner and that the learner will benefit from it, will be able to exercise his or her fundamental right to education, and will be taught at least as regularly and as well as in a public school. The parent must declare the highest education standard achieved by him or her, the hours of the day and the minimum days per year during which the parent plans to teach the learner, information about the programme that will be followed, the learning resources that will be available and submit the proposed curriculum for approval”.

This curriculum must comply with the minimum requirements of the curriculum in public schools and must not be inferior to the standard of education provided at public schools. It must comply with the language policy and the outcomes specified for each of the phases. It must also be consistent with the values contained in the Constitution and stipulates that parents who choose home education for reasons related to curriculum, ideology and pedagogy must not instil unfair discrimination, racism or religious intolerance in learners. This is a sticking point for many parents who home school for religious reasons and who do not register with the Department as the curriculum they follow may not be approved. The “unschoolers” will definitely not register as they have no curriculum to present.

Once registered, parents must keep a record of attendance, records of progression as well as records of assessment for the end of the first year of home schooling and at the ends of grades 3, 6 and 9. An independent, qualified person – remedial teacher or psychologist – must complete this assessment or the parent may approach a public or independent school for assessment.

The implications for non-registration are serious and the parent will be regarded as guilty of an offence as contemplated in section 3(6) of the National Education Policy Act, 1996. Should the Department of Education discover that a parent isn’t registered they will give them a short while to fulfill the requirements or put the learner back into school. Failing that the Department of Social Services will be contacted and legal action could follow. Besides the legal implications, a lack of assessment and records could mean that the learner could fall behind in their education and should they wish to enrol at a tertiary institution later on they would not be able to do so.

Registration is only required for the compulsory years of schooling up to Grade 9. However should the parent wish to continue home schooling to Grade 12 and have the learner sit the State Matric exams, they will still need to keep adequate records of attendance and assessment. To register to write the matric exams as an independent candidate with the Department of Education will require submission of records showing ability. These exams would be written at a State school and the results used to gain admittance to a tertiary institution in the same way as the other learners. Many high school home learners study by correspondence the Cambridge A levels or HIGCSE.

What about sport and socialising?

There are two schools of thought amongst home schoolers when it comes to sport, those that are pro competitive team sport and those that are completely anti any competitive or contact sport. The pro group joins clubs so that their children can take part in team sports and the anti group focus on sports such as swimming, which encourages fitness and basic water safety. There are some home schoolers who organise provincial galas, Entrepeneurs Day and other provincial events. Most home schoolers belong to their local home schooling associations, which are present in every province, and each association has individual chapters, which are area based. They arrange regular get togethers and joint outings, some on a weekly basis. Parents who teach the same curriculum sometimes get together and take turns to teach specific modules though this is the exception rather than the norm. There are plenty of extramurals available to the general public – e.g. ballet, art, music, drama, martial arts – that home schoolers attend and parents arrange play dates in much the same way as the parents of school going children do.

The downside to home schooling

There are many critics of home schooling who believe it to be highly elitist and limiting in terms of developing social networks. It takes home schoolers longer to make friends, as they do not see the same children on a daily basis. Margie Erasmus says of her experience: “I decided to home school my children because we were constantly moving due to my husband’s work commitments. My son, Matthew, never wants to go back to mainstream schooling but my younger son, Daniel, is desperate to go back to school so that he can make some friends. One of the local home schooling associations we belonged to had within it a lot of socially dysfunctional children that my children didn’t want to play with. As soon as we are settled in a province I will reassess our situation.”