I wrote this article during my final semester of studying journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Home schooling is rising in popularity among Australians. But how well does this education option prepare students for further education?
At age four, Sophie Fox and Rebekah Willson hated each other. But their mothers decided that they were going to be friends anyway. Now they’re both nineteen-years-old – and their mothers were right.
We sit at a cluttered table where some little sisters do their schoolwork, occasionally assisted by their mums. “Sorry about the mess,” Sophie says. “This is what a typical home school house looks like.”
For their entire lives, Sophie and Rebekah (and their younger and older siblings) were home schooled. Their mothers are both former teachers who felt that, with thirty students in a classroom, there isn’t enough focus and individual attention for each child at a mainstream school.
But their daughters are no longer at school.
In September this year, the cover of Boston Magazine featured an image of a smiling young woman and the caption ‘Homeschool got me into Harvard’. It made me curious about the life of home educated students in Australia once they finished high school.
Home educated students in NSW are not eligible for the Higher School Certificate (HSC), but this hasn’t stopped Sophie and Rebekah from pursing tertiary education. Sophie finished home school in Year 10 and is currently studying arts and science at university after completing a Certificate IV in science at TAFE. Rebekah is in her second year of a bachelor of psychology which she got into through Newcastle University’s pathway program NewStep. The two girls were attending university whilst others their age sat the HSC.
But higher education is not as easy as they anticipated.
David Zyngier, senior education lecturer at Monash University and former state school teacher and principle, says that mainstream schools have careers advisors, students do work experience, and students are able to study subjects that’ll allow them to gain entry into courses or apprenticeships of their choice. The variety of different subjects that one can study at school gives them an opportunity to learn about different areas and see which ones they enjoy. This then helps them choose a career or a higher education course that is in line with their preferred subjects.
“I’m at uni now, but I’m still trying to work out what I want to do,” Sophie says. “It would’ve been nice to have worked all of that out already. I feel like I could’ve benefited from having to do lots of subjects at a regular school”.
In 2011, Ray Pennings reported that home school graduates are more likely to lack clarity about the future. With her mother as her only teacher and limited access to facilities and resources, Sophie is yet to decide on a career. In addition to science, she has also tried nursing, childcare, maths, hieroglyphics and archaeology subjects since finishing school.
But Glenda Jackson believes that this actually positively reflects home schoolers’ willingness to be more flexible with their education. She has a PhD in Australian home schooling and is the director of the Australian Home Education Advisory Service.
Moreover, a lack of clarity about the future is not a problem limited to home school students. Sally Kift, deputy vice chancellor at James Cook University, claims that a third of school leavers are uncertain about the course or career-choice that they’ve made. First-time students endure significant uncertainty when transitioning into university – wherever they come from. “Whether private or public schooled, there are a complex combination of factors and pressures,” Kift said in an ABC article earlier this year.
A slightly more serious post-school difficulty that Sophie and Rebekah have experienced is the struggle with exams.
For home educated students, examinations are optional. Having not sat any during her home education, Sophie found exams to be “one huge emotionally-draining shock” once she got to TAFE. She finished a two-hour exam in five hours, and was the last person left in the room.
Rebekah had a bit more experience with exams; her mother organised a few once Rebekah reached high school. “But there’s only so much pressure when it’s your mum,” she says, and the results did not need to be sent to the Board of Studies like a real exam would. “At NewStep I scored quite badly in my exams. I sometimes wonder if I’d be better at writing under pressure if I had gone to school – I might’ve had a bit more practise at it.”
But perhaps the greatest post-school challenge for both Sophie and Rebekah was discovering and dealing with their learning difficulties. Throughout home school, Sophie battled with what she now knows is dyslexia.
Rebekah is yet to be diagnosed but believes that she also has a reading disability of some sort. “At home school, mum would just read for me a lot of the time, so I didn’t really notice that there was a problem until I got to university and had to do all this reading.”
On their website, the NSW Department of Education states how public schools can help students with learning difficulties: ‘Access to specialist resources is facilitated through the student’s school…The Learning and Support Team assists classroom teachers to address the educational needs of students with a disability or learning difficulty.’
But home educators dealing with learning difficulties are on their own. On their website, the NSW Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards states: “It is expected that in planning an educational program, a parent will consider his or her child’s individual learning needs and will incorporate specific learning activities and content to address those needs.”
Yet, though they have never attended a regular school, both girls are grateful that they were home educated – Sophie believes that her dyslexia would’ve been worse had she attended a mainstream school as it would’ve affected her self-confidence, and Rebekah feels that she has been able to go through school without feeling disadvantaged.
Jackson agrees that home school means children are not defined by their learning difficulties, and this affects their learning behaviour and attitude positively. She also believes that people who struggle to read can still learn: “You can build up a child’s knowledge and self-confidence regardless of their reading ability.”
And Deborah Murray, who trains teachers in Reading Recovery, does not think that home school is a disadvantage for children who struggle to read. “Home school families have access to technology that can cater for a lot of learning. For a home educated child struggling to read, parents can visit Doctor Google and access assistance from across the globe.”
Academic issues aside, research compiled by Talina Drabsch indicates that a common concern among Australians about home schooling is that it may impede the proper socialisation of children. This comes with the belief that the quality of peer interaction in a classroom can enhance the learning experience…in learning how to interact with children of the same age and in being exposed to a diverse range of beliefs and backgrounds.
Sophie labels the home education scene as a “community” and states that it involves a lot of social activities and gatherings with other local home schoolers. Rebekah agrees, explaining how these home educated students learnt to befriend and include each other despite their different ages and genders.
Many of the home educated students that Sophie studied with decided to do the same course after finishing school, so she already knew a fair few people at TAFE.
But Rebekah, who describes herself as an introvert, says that socialisation in her first year out of school was a tricky transition. “I’d grown up with all these other home school kids – we’d hang out all the time and do school together – and then all of a sudden, after I finished school, I was in an environment without any of my friends. I felt heaps isolated.”
But Jackson believes that there’s nothing wrong with having only a handful of friends as it reflects normal adult life. “An adult can count the number of their close friends on both hands. So, there’s really no need for kids to befriend everyone in their class.”
Despite the difficulties that she is facing in post-school life, Rebekah does not regret her home education. “Home school has taught me how to interact well with adults. I’m not afraid to have a conversation with my tutors or ask questions, and this type of engagement actually helps me to learn better.” At NewStep, her assessment scores far outweighed her exam scores, and she finished the course with an atar-equivalent much higher than she needed.
Sophie is also happy that she did not attend regular school. “At school, you have the people who are ahead but still have to do what everyone else is doing, and you have the people who are behind but still have to do what everyone else is doing,” she says. “At home school I needed a bit of extra help, so I probably would’ve hated school and would’ve always been behind. I probably would’ve just given up.”
At TAFE, there were a lot of things that Sophie didn’t know. “But,” she says, “That wasn’t really a problem because at home school, the main thing that I learnt was how to learn and how to ask questions.” She managed to complete her Certificate IV with a Distinction and believes that doing exams at TAFE has prepared her well for university.
Jackson says that learning how to learn is more important than what you learn. “If home educated kids are interested in a topic, they know that there are multiple ways that they can go about their learning: surfing the internet, finding a manual, contacting a more informed person, going to the library, relying on a range of texts rather than one text, and using their mouths to ask questions. Kids in a mainstream school do not know these things.”
“At some stage, most home schoolers will want to go to school,” Sophie admits. “But when all your friends are complaining endlessly about school, that desire quickly fades.” In fact, the biggest part of mainstream school that the two girls feel like they’ve truly missed out on is the opportunity to dress up for a school formal.