On the whole, New Zealand's roughly 6,000 homeschooling parents are a contented lot, pocketing a government allowance of up to $NZ743 for each child they educate themselves. There's no such grant in Australia, where, although homeschooling is legal, many practitioners feel marginalized. In Victoria, home educators are protesting parts of the state government's proposed new Education Act, under which they'll be required to register with authorities from next year. For now, Victoria remains the only place in Australia where no such obligation exists. It's a freedom they'll fight to retain, say prominent homeschoolers, who argue parents have a right to educate their children without interference from the state.
Spats over registration are perhaps the least interesting element of homeschooling, which raises many of the most basic questions about the needs of children. Most people's gut reaction is that children simply must go to school. Perhaps parents can look after the three Rs, they say, but nothing beats school for preparing the child for life beyond home. There's probably some truth in that. Yet it's fair to ask why, as a society, we assume that a minimum of 10 years at school is appropriate for all children any more than a spell in the Army is right for all 18-year-old males. Homeschoolers are not "school bashers," says Terry Harding, principal of the Australian Christian Academy, the country's largest homeschooling organization. "They see schools as a wonderful community service. But they also want what (homeschoolers) do recognized as a new educational phenomenon." Others say homeschooling is more than that - a glimpse into the future of education.
In fact, ripping into schooling is something homeschoolers have done with vigor and eloquence. "There is nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school," wrote the partly home-educated George Bernard Shaw. "It is a prison (where teachers) discourse without charm on subjects they don't understand and don't care about." Shaw's sentiment lives on in Sydney mother Mujahidah Flint, who withdrew two of her daughters from their Muslim school before the older one had finished Year 2. Flint felt the school wasn't honoring Islamic values, among other failings. Later, her view of school soured as she read the works of the American John Taylor Gatto, a former prizewinning teacher who lectures on what he calls the "tyranny of compulsory schooling." Gatto portrays schooling as an instrument of social engineering where children are taught to know their place. Flint at first doubted her ability to teach Aleah, now 15, and Tahirrah, 13. Today, she and the girls say the arrangement has worked fine. "I've become really anti-school," Flint says. "I just don't believe it suits the majority of students."
Once upon a time, homeschooling ruled. In colonial Australia, education occurred in the family home or in dame schools, where a benevolent woman taught several children for a few hours a day in her home. In 1880, when less than a third of New South Wales children received schooling, the state's Premier, Henry Parkes, pushed through the Public Instruction Act, establishing free, secular and compulsory education. School has been seen as the place for kids to learn ever since. But homeschoolers are now lobbing water bombs at that status quo.
John Barratt-Peacock has looked more closely than any other Australian into why parents choose homeschooling. Religion (or "world view") plays a role as often as not, says the former teacher, though its influence isn't straightforward. He tells of two fathers who each withdrew their daughter from the same Year 4 class in northern Tasmania: one felt too much time was being wasted on Easter and Christmas frippery; the other objected to the humanistic curriculum, "so that teacher was damned either way." Some parents act on the view that the drudgery of school dulls children's desire to learn. Others recognize that while a teacher in charge of 30 children has no hope of catering to their different levels of intelligence and motivation (never mind their preferences on light and noise, posture and the scheduling of breaks), parents responsible for a much smaller group - their own children - can and do.
Home educators no doubt have a heightened sense of parental responsibility. While critics dismiss them as oddballs, no one could accuse these parents of taking the easy option. By rejecting school, they commit to a plan that will diminish their earning power and personal freedom for years to come. "There's nothing more artificial in the whole world than a classroom," says Craig Smith, a homeschooling father of eight in Palmerston North, New Zealand. His and wife Barbara's experience mirrors that of many families: having spent the first year or two of home education trying to duplicate the classroom scene, the Smiths nowadays largely eschew anything resembling lessons. Their view is that children need intensive one-on-one tuition to master the three Rs, but thereafter only guidance and access to books. The jovial Smith plonks his youngsters on his knees and tells them news and stories. They go to church twice on Sundays and travel often within New Zealand and occasionally overseas. Three times a day they eat together as a family. "Visitors will say, 'You're not doing any schooling at all!' I'll say, 'You're correct. However, the children are learning heaps, and they're learning it in the context of everyday life.'"
Authorities don't object to the world-is-my-classroom approach. So long as parents appear to be committed to their child's education, getting registered as a home educator is usually a formality. "The few who are knocked back," says Colleen Strange, Sydney-based founder of the Home Education Association, "haven't the slightest idea what they're doing." Registration comes up for renewal every year or two - when, in most parts of Australia, a bureaucrat will pay a visit to check that the child is making progress. It may be interesting to ponder how much you've retained of what you learned at school. Those who've forgotten umpteen mathematical formulas and the periodic table are generally none the worse for it. Though there's much to be said for a broad education, there's also merit in the view that children should be free to explore what interests them. Mujahidah Flint's daughter Tahirrah reads encyclopedias and dictionaries for fun. "I don't like dumb, funny books," she says. "I like the classics . . . Dickens, Kipling." At 10, she wrote her first book; her latest follows a troubled teen whose parents decide to homeschool her. Tahirrah has a clear picture of her future: teaching English in Turkey, her father's homeland, while continuing to write novels. And much of her learning is geared toward that goal.
Sean Devenish's parents withdrew him from his Perth school 10 years ago when he was in Year 5. A bright boy, "I'd finish a task," he says, "then wait for the rest of the kids to catch up." His sister Joanne, meanwhile, was struggling in Year 3 and feeling stupid, and her parents pulled her out at the same time. Today, in their new home in Colebrook, north of Hobart, none of the Devenishes' eight children attends formal classes. "We help them excel at what they're good at and work on their weaknesses," says mother Helen. Joanne, she adds, never took to intellectual pursuits, but at 18 she sews and bakes bread and helps her six-year-old sister learn to read.