Home truths

12/03/2008 02:10 PM | By Samantha Dobson

A growing number of families in Dubai are finding an upbeat alternative to traditional schools: their home. As families face school admission waitlists, the sometimes crippling cost of private education, and curricula that fall short of parents’ expectations, home schooling is increasingly becoming an attractive option.

The front rooms of Mel’s Dubai villa certainly don’t look like a school. The noise of shouting children, long echoing corridors and walls packed with garish colours are all missing. Instead, these children take a rest from a quiet morning of playing make-believe with wooden toys, shells and seeds to share a snack. Seated together at a low table, they politely offer each other bowls of fresh organic fruits they have sliced themselves. The walls are painted dreamy pastels. Times tables are learnt using rhythm and hand-writing isn’t begun until the child has mastered the art of knitting.

Mel, who requested to remain anonymous, home schools nine children ranging in age from four to nine years, following the Waldorf philosophy. “Waldorf is perfect for home schooling,” she says. “In my home these children learn how to be valuable members of society in an incredibly positive and supportive manner. The Waldorf way is to nurture the magic of childhood and the gift of imagination. Here we let each child explore their creativity and learn at their own pace. There are no tests, we encourage cooperation over competition, and we shun hierarchy. This is not just an education, but a lifestyle. No school in Dubai offers Waldorf education, so these families are schooled in my home.”

While home schooling might not be the right choice for every family, those who do self-educate represent a silent but committed minority among UAE residents. Long waiting lists for school admission, traffic woes, high tuition costs, religious conviction and the desire for high academic achievement are some of the many justifications for home schooling.

While personal reasons for home schooling are varied, most families have one thing in common – they prefer to remain anonymous. This is not for legal reasons – the UAE Ministry of Education is aware of the growing home school movement and though it isn’t prohibited – as it is in some other countries - bureaucracy can cause problems. Some families say that school transfer papers are difficult to produce when (and if) the child needs to enter a mainstream school.

The guardedness most families display is necessary, they say, to protect themselves and their children from the constant fire otherwise attracted from the UAE’s more conservative majority, who often spurn what they believe to be eccentric or even irresponsible education methods.

Dubai home schooling mum Rachel (name changed on request) has home schools her three children, now aged 13, ten and seven years, and has been doing so for the past eight years. “The subject of education in this town is something I avoid,” she says. “If I do admit to home schooling, the first question I’m asked is ‘Why?’ The answer is simple - because we believe we can do a better job.”

The home advantage

Academic achievement of home schooled children is as well documented as it is compelling. Dubai statistics are sketchy, but in America an estimated three to four percent of all school-aged children – that’s a total of up to two million - are educated at home. And the movement is estimated to be growing at an annual rate of 15 per cent. Former American Department of Education researcher, Patricia Lines, asserts that the rapid rise in home schooling is “one of the most significant social trends of the past half century.”

Nearly 80 per cent of American home-schooled children achieve individual scores well above the national average. Students between grades one to four typically perform one grade level higher than their public and private school counterparts. By grade eight, the average home school student performs four grade levels above the national average. Statistically, home schooled students have the highest acceptance rate into top ranking universities of any other educative group. In fact, home schooled kids are far more likely - 88 per cent - to continue their education beyond high school as compared to 50 per cent of those attending private schools. Such results boost confidence in home schooling and prove to a startled public that this method of unorthodox education must be doing something right.

Another Dubai mother, Jane (name also changed by request), who is presently home schooling her three children ranging in age from four to ten years, claims their reason for home schooling was purely for academic achievement. “It is unlikely any professional, no matter how dedicated, will offer the same commitment to a child as a parent. I want the best for my children. I have a vested interest in knowing each of their learning strengths then using them to overcome their weaknesses. Through teaching my daughter, for example, I know she’s a visual learner. With that knowledge I am able to present her work in the way she will respond the best and absorb the most. In a formal school environment there is always the issue of trying to be better than peers. Here it is individually comparative - have I done better than last time? And that is so motivating.”

Children are instilled with natural curiosity and an instinctive love of learning, something home schooling hones in on. “To our family, learning is perfectly natural,” continues Jane. “I helped my children to walk; I listened to their first words. I also teach them how to read and write. But just as I don’t see myself as a teacher, nor do I see our home as a school – it’s a learning environment. For our family school doesn’t stop just because lessons are over, we never stop learning. Discussions flow over to the dinner table and the children contribute and absorb it all. For us it’s much more than an education, it’s a lifestyle we’ve chosen.”

Most dedicated parents believe that home education breaks the shackles of limitation. Protection from what is sometimes stifling conformity in mainstream schooling, they say, can be incredibly liberating for a child. “Take away all the reshuffling from ICT to swimming, the waiting for others to get pencils and books ready, the normal disruption of a classroom, and home schooling is a lot more efficient,” says Jane. “We can get our day’s work done in perhaps half the time it would take in mainstream schools. That leaves an awful lot of the day to pursue hobbies and to discover who they really are.”

Going it alone

Perhaps the biggest criticism home schooling parents face is the perceived social isolation of their children.. “Yes, socialisation is a challenge,” says Rachel, “but it’s not impossible. Afternoons and weekends are free for sports and activities with their peers. I’m not convinced the classroom is the ideal place to learn social skills anyway. Sure they may miss out on the ‘school of hard knocks’ lessons most of us endured growing up, but I don’t know that I’m better off now because of those lessons. Given a choice, I’d rather not put my children through that.”

Mel also questions the idea that up to 30 same-age children in a classroom should be looked up to as an ideal in socialisation. “Age or grade needn’t be segregated or experienced as a barrier. Each age group has something to offer each other – younger children learn from imitating older children, and the older in turn learn responsibility through nurturing the young. Away from the constraints of peer group pressure there is a lot of freedom for children to develop in the way they want to. It’s a well known Waldorf approach. There’s more to school than academics, there’s also a strong moral, spiritual and social element.”

American statistics more accurately evaluate just how socialised their home schooled children actually are. Using a checklist of the 97 most common behaviour problems displayed by children, one study found that those attending conventional schools were more than eight times more likely to display any one of them than home-schooled children.

Once they reach adulthood, 71 per cent of those home schooled are actively involved in the community, compared to 39 per cent of the general population. Dr. Knowles from the University of Michigan, found that of the home-educated adults he interviewed, none were unemployed or on welfare; 94 per cent stated that their home schooling had prepared them for life as an independent person, 79 per cent indicated that they were better able to interact with individuals from all levels of society, and nearly all would home school their own children. The same report found home schooled children to be “happier, better adjusted, more thoughtful, competent, and sociable than those either sent to public or private schools.”

Psychologist and learning specialist with the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, Devika Singh, confirms that Dubai is currently experiencing a surge in home schooling. “Education is about creating an environment for academic and personal development. What’s important is finding the right match for both the parent and the child. Some children benefit greatly from a larger class environment. They find it stimulating to have the constant interaction and variety of peers and activities in the classroom and during play times. But the same exposure can be sensory overload for another child who may require more individual contact and dialogue. Socialisation can be an issue in both environments. It’s a question of having the courage to do what’s best for your child. Home schooling is a choice that requires additional focus and dedication. If this is possible then it can be a very beneficial experience for both child and parent.”

What about the children themselves? Cameron, 12 years old, has been home schooled all his life and has spent the last three years in Dubai. “Friends in my street describe school to me and it sounds awful; full of strict teachers and forced homework. They tell me I’m lucky and that it’s cool to be different. I like it,” he grins. “We’ve moved around a lot, living in a different country every two or three years. The only thing that hasn’t changed in that time is my school – it’s always at home.”

Useful sites

The internet has an enormous amount on offer for home schoolers – so much, say parents that it can get overwhelming. On the other hand, with so much available it is also possible to adopt an eclectic approach, taking the bits from each programme that best suit your child. Here are some of the better websites for more information on home schooling: