Features Australia

Why I’m homeschooling

And I’m not telling the bureaucrats

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

My journey from homeschooling sceptic to homeschool cheerleader was in two parts. There is the practical journey, which takes in literacy, numeracy, and science; and there is what I will call the emotional journey.

My practical journey actually pre-existed. As a teenager, I would routinely read the essays submitted to my university lecturer mother by her aspiring-teacher students. Spelling and grammar were consistently appalling, but it was the sentences containing no discernible meaning that I particularly enjoyed. So I was predestined to begin sentences with a chronologically smug ‘In my day we were taught correct…’

But my practical journey proper began when I was at a relative’s house, and I noticed a letter on the kitchen bench. My niece’s primary teacher had written to parents and had taken it upon herself to use four different fonts. The document was an aesthetic war zone, but when spelling and grammar were considered, it was a literary apocalypse.

At that moment in the kitchen I charted a course for the homeschool. Schooling — as I understood it — had always been a collaborative exercise between teachers and parents, with the primacy belonging to the parent. But formal schooling, it seemed to me, was the most obvious forum for the teaching of at least basic literacy and numeracy.

The reality, however, is that our schools just don’t do well at these areas, which are where most parents need the most help. According to the Federal Government, 75,000 kids failed to meet the Naplan minimum reading standard last year, and many thousands more were below average. In the face of such grim figures, it’s surprising to see Australia ranked sixth overall on the OECD table for literacy, numeracy and science, but this is a smoke-and-mirrors trick.

The dumbing down of education has taken over our schools, as it has throughout the western world. In once academic disciplines such as English, knowledge is forsaken for the imperatives of creativity and expression. As the Chair of Language and Communication at Oxford remarked, ‘I actually deplore the use of the words “correct” and “incorrect” in relation to language… I really hate people being given inferiority complexes over the way they talk or write.’ Well yes, but isn’t it the job of education to correct deficiencies, rather than to imagine every existing rule and convention as optional?

Accounts of essentially illiterate university students are legion, and some of them graduate in education. Hence the letter on the kitchen bench. And so, while the priority of literary and numeracy is diminished, other ways of spending class time happily fill the void. Here begins my emotional journey, and it’s emotional for two reasons.

Firstly, the subjects that fill the void are, from the progressive educationalist’s perspective, best taught emotionally. I have a ‘class news’ sheet from one state high school which reports on the Australian ‘refugee crisis’ that students had discussed. Readers of this magazine won’t be surprised, but the news sheet is completely devoid of any sensible discussion on border integrity, international law, human rights, broader immigration policy, or even the underlying factors that necessitate people attempting hazardous sea journeys. Rather, it is replete with pithy quotes about ‘refugees [being] people too,’ Israel being racist, and Palestinians arriving by boat (although to be fair, the context suggests some confusion of Palestine with Yemen). It is also laden with spelling mistakes which were obviously overlooked lest any student be given an inferiority complex.

I should say, however, that all things being equal I love this type of discussion. And in homeschooling I imagine there will be ample opportunity for wide-ranging discussion, and earnest colloquy about current issues in society, politics and culture. The problem, of course, is that all things are not equal. Up to 75,000 children failing to meet minimum Naplan standards puts the equation way out.

And yet, emotional, politically correct orthodoxies are woven into every part of the curriculum as the teachers and schools invest heavily in areas which should be the preserve of parents, leaving parents to deal with literacy and numeracy issues as they supervise homework and pay for private tuition. In the impending national curriculum, omnipresent ‘cross-curriculum priorities’ such as ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ touch all areas of study, doubtless with their progressive agendas and dumbed down, emotional philosophies and methodologies of education.

Secondly, it’s an emotional journey because I get emotional about it. Remember we’re in the realm of history, philosophy, the environment, the arts, literature, and economics — rather than lexical meanings, and moods, tenses and cases, or algebra and geometry. These incorporate the foundations of religion, politics, activism, human rights, questions of good and evil, and questions of life and death. And I get emotional as I think about how these things will be taught to my kids, and by whom.

In all states, a child must either attend a registered school, or be registered as homeschooled. The former requires submission to the prescribed curriculum, but so does the latter, together with the attendant key learning areas and cross-curriculum priorities. And lest parents who choose the homeschooling option be lazy or uncommitted, the government employs inspectors — euphemistically titled ‘consultants’ — to pry into homes and pore over workbooks. Of course, their main job is to enforce the curriculum, and while people who volunteer to do that may be unmoved by correct spelling, they will be very particular about correct language!

Having arrived at my homeschooling destination, it would seem a pity then to submit to the state’s curriculum and inspection regime. And besides, my general rule is that government agents produce warrants before entering my home. Perhaps one day they will come equipped with one, and require my kids attend an approved school to be re-educated in accordance with Canberra’s edicts. But until then I’ll teach my kids literacy, numeracy and science using some of the range of curricula available. And, with the help of authors and experts of my choosing, I’ll educate them in what they need to know to understand their society, culture, politics, economy, and heritage. And I won’t be telling the bureaucrats.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Chris Ashton is completing masters degrees in church history (Presbyterian Theological Centre) and United States studies (University of Sydney).

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  • Bec Dye

    Interesting article Chris! I’m passionate about education and passionate about teaching God’s view of the world to our kids. We’re going down the Christian schooling road. I could not home school my children- and I don’t say that lightly.

    Did you know that Christian Schools don’t have to teach the state curriculum? It just has to be approved by the Board of Studies. To be approved it needs to show process and increased intensity- they’re not concerned about conformity or a humanistic world view, rather, they focus on a children meeting academic standards at the right ages- I don’t have a problem with the BOS checking in on what we’re doing. There are some fabulous home schoolers and some not so fabulous ones- I figure if you have nothing to hide there is no problem.

    I do applaud your thinking through schooling and what is best for your children from a Biblical perspective. I find too many parents ‘go with the flow’ and do not consider the long term ramifications of a government run- humanistic based programme.

    Personally, we seek schooling where our child’s worth and character are measured using the Bible as the gauge. Too many schools judge a child purely on their academic skills (or lack of) and use this to determine their classes, peers and teachers and ultimately preparedness for living in this world.

    • Chris Ashton

      Hi Bec – thanks for your comments. In answer to the first sentence in your second paragraph, the answer is “no.” Are you able to send me a link to more info?

  • Christopher Hoare

    The “75,000 kids failed to meet the Naplan [sic] minimum reading standard” is an oft-used phrase that is never examined with any scrutiny. It’s usually trotted out to bash the Government of the day, or to try and advocate for more money to be poured into the public education system. Or in the case of this article, to criticise the entire public education system. That figure, by the way, is around 2% of the total enrollment. To reverse the argument, 98% of students did meet or exceed the NAPLAN minimum reading standard. One could argue this is actually a good achievement!

    But to those children who fail – why? Is the curriculum at fault? Or does the fault lie elsewhere? Perhaps even with parents who don’t get involved with their children’s education. That suddenly makes the argument a whole lot more complex and makes the thrust of this article quite dangerous. If parents aren’t getting involved in their own children’s formal education, why on earth would anyone expect them to suddenly change in a home-schooled scenario? It’s a nonsensical argument really.

    Maybe rather than allowing a free-for-all for home schooling (“hey, my kids don’t need to know how to read and write, but they need to know how to home-brew beer!”), perhaps we could look at how the public education system could be improved to raise the standards for all children. Surely a society where as many kids as possible receive the highest possible standard of education is a good thing?

    One interesting aspect to debate is what constitutes a good education? Reading? Writing? Mathematics? History? Ethics? Religion? Health? etc Where does the parents’ role fit in with a formal and/or external structure? For everyone the balance will be a little different, but as everyone will be a member of society it is not unreasonable to expect a degree of consistency with at least some of these topics.

    And it is concerning that someone who is advocating home-schooling seems unaware that acronyms should be written/typed using upper case letters – it is NAPLAN, not Naplan. Some parents should not over-estimate their teaching abilities!

    • Chris Ashton

      Hi Chris – this parent certainly isn’t over-estimating his abilities – just conforming to the magazine’s style guide. In any case, the acronym that you are so upset about was a change made by a sub-editor.

      • Christopher Hoare

        Not upset, merely disappointed that an article ostensibly about education had such a basic error in it. It seems the Spectator’s standards are not what they used to be.

        Regardless of whether it was author error or deliberate decision by a sub-editor (as you claim), I guess it is further proof of the theory that the media is simply a reflection of society. Your overall point is correct – education standards are slipping! But perhaps we shouldn’t point out these sorts of errors lest either authors or sub-editors be given an inferiority complex, hmmm?

        Not sure that home schooling is the answer though – and I suspect you don’t either, do you…;)

        • Chris Ashton

          May I suggest that your upset….sorry…. disappointment (and your skepticism about my “claim”) might be abated if you go and buy the print edition of the (sub-standard) Spectator Australia? Page ix.

          • Christopher Hoare

            Where it will demonstrate there is a discrepancy between the online and offline versions of the article?

            Those pesky sub-editors…

  • Neil Pierson

    Good comment – “I get emotional as I think about how these things will be taught to my kids, and by whom”

    Many of the Christian schools in Australia were started by immigrants. Dutch immigrants enjoyed a greater freedom of choice of both what, and who, was involved in their children’s education back in Europe. I am grateful for the battles they fought over the years to give parents in a Australia a greater choice.

    You may be interested in the video series http://www.whychristianschools.com.au which reminds parents it is their responsibility to decide about education.

  • judy smith

    I love that you’re thinking about this before your children enter the years of schooling. As someone who has been on both sides of the spectrum-teacher & Mum – I have come to the conclusion that the best scenario is for parents & teachers to work together with the child for the best outcome. I’ve taught in areas where the parents didn’t want to help at all & in other schools the parents thought they knew more than the teachers. That’s why i believe parents & teachers should work as a team . For me I could not have homeschooled my children as I believe that would have been limiting the range of their education & socialisation . We were fortunate to live in areas where there have been great public schools so I understand the deleamour when the schools are not as good.

    All the best Chris with your further thinking on this subject.

    • Chris Ashton

      Hi Judy – thanks for your comment, and I certainly accept the wide spectrum of both teachers and parents.

      I do, however, think that the “limiting the range of education & socialisation” argument is perhaps a bit weak. Certainly with regard to socialisation, there are other options (homeschooling groups, sporting clubs, musical groups, churches, neighbours…just off the top of my head). Likewise, there are specialised classes for homeschoolers in everything from maths to drama to music to art.

      I was at the symphony last week and I wondered how many of the SSO musicians got there because of their high school music class. I realise there are schools like the Conservatorium High School which are specifically designed to church our such musicians, and others such as Chatswood which are known for their high quality bands, etc, but my guess is that they are the exception, and that nearly everyone who makes a career out of music had outside help.