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The new normal?

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Has having the kids at home for so many months turned you on to the idea of homeschool? Sam Fisher takes a look at the pros and cons

Being with your kids 24/7, which is what so many of us have experienced this past year, is challenging. Let’s face it, at times, it’s tortuous. But now that schools are reopening, and we’re about to go back to the old ways, I find myself looking for alternatives. I feel we’ve gained so much as a family from this ‘enforced’ time together at home, and I’ve really enjoyed teaching my kids – I’ve loved understanding how each of them learns, and seeing them progress – so, I wonder, is homeschool an option for us?

The first thing to know is that homeschool is legal in Hong Kong, but if you are going down this route, you need to inform the Education Bureau. Government inspectors will then visit your home to check you know what you’re doing – that you follow a timetable and have appropriate teaching resources – and to assess your child’s performance. If the inspectors like what they see, your child is registered as a Non- Attendance Case, and you can proceed. You can expect follow-up home visits twice a year, but as
long as the inspectors don’t see a drop in your child’s performance, you’ll be allowed to continue.

As it turns out, homeschool is already a popular option in Hong Kong, particularly within the expat community. Danny Harrington of ITS Education Asia explains: “Firstly, there is the question of school place availability. It is incredibly difficult to access local schools as the competition for places from local families is so high, and there are huge concerns about the impact on education of being thrown into a completely different school language and cultural environment. Most expats look therefore to the international
school system but there are limited places, dependent on year group, and there’s also the issue of cost.

“‘International school’ in Hong Kong means independent or private school anywhere else and, of course, the costs are comparable. At US$20,000 per child per year up (and as much as US$40,000++) there aren’t all that many families that can find the spare cash to educate one, let alone two or three children. Homeschooling by comparison can be done very cheaply indeed for younger kids and even for children in exam years, such as IGCSE and A-level. Getting support online both in terms of materials and expert teachers through live online classrooms doesn’t really need to exceed about US$5,000 per child per year, although deluxe options could take this up to more like US$15,000 per child per year.”

While ITS provides a wide range of online homeschool classes and support, teaching the main syllabuses to all ages, there are many credible options out there, including specialist apps like iTooch. Just as importantly, there are a number of locally based homeschool support groups that enable parents to network to get the best academic process in place and to deal with the socialising issue.

Local families looking for a ready-made support framework are advised to check out Facebook groups like Homeschooling Support HK and Homeschool Resources HK. The Hong Kong Homeschool Meetup Group is another good bet, since it meets on a regular basis to provide support for parents and extra-curricular activities for kids.

After the initial shock of leaving the school system has passed, parents who homeschool say they experience a real sense of freedom. With their lives no longer revolving around school hours, homework and the school calendar, they are free to plan off-season holidays, visit parks and museums during the week, and live their lives in their
own way. It’s also worth noting that homeschooled kids, who benefit from one-on-one tailored learning, tend to accomplish in a few hours what kids in a typical classroom
take much longer to cover. Most homeschoolers therefore spend less time studying and, of course, as an added bonus, they get no homework. What’s more, free of the commute to and from school, and the gruelling eight-hour school day, they tend to be less stressed and better rested.

To a large extent, homeschooled  students have the choice to study what they want, when they want, for as long as they want. The basics may be covered at age six for one child, and at age 10 for another, depending on ability, maturity and interest levels. While formal schooling follows a strict timeline and many children find it challenging to keep up, the opposite is true of homeschool, which makes it an ideal option for kids with special or different learning needs. Even in the secondary school years, with exams looming, parents can pace and customise learning schedules to suit their children’s needs, preferences and abilities.

By the same token, homeschool provides the opportunity for parents to incorporate their religious and spiritual beliefs into their chosen curriculum. Homeschool also makes sense for kids who find it difficult to find their feet in the mainstream school system and who need to be protected from what can too often be a ‘hostile’ classroom environment. Peer pressure, bullying and competition can all be part of a typical school day, particularly for girls in their early teens. However, none of this is an issue for homeschooled kids. Homeschoolers can dress, act and think the way they want, without fear of ridicule or a need to fit in. They live in the real world, where lives aren’t dictated by adolescent trends and dangerous experimentation.

On the flip side, ‘troubled’ teens are seen to benefit enormously from the closer family relationships engendered by homeschool, with parents reporting that rebellious or destructive behaviours soon start to diminish. Certainly, most parents stress the important role that homeschool plays in helping them find time to foster loving ties between all family members.

There’s no way around it, however, homeschool is a full-time job. For married parents, one partner often foregoes employment outside of the home in order to homeschool. This can be a big sacrifice for families who are struggling to balance their budget. The plus side is that most parents believe that the loss of income is well worth the satisfaction of watching their kids grow and learn in freedom.

Bottomline though: If you don’t enjoy being with your kids 24/7, then homeschool is not for you. There’s time spent on formal studies, and you also need to provide plenty of additional learning tools in the form of hands-on experiences and activities. Planning, getting to, and participating in these extracurricular activities (or waiting for them to be over) will likely take up the bulk of your day.

And what about friends? How do you provide for your child’s social development without the ready-made community of a school? While local sports activities and clubs fill the void for younger kids, homeschooled teens often find limited opportunities to join sports teams, especially competitive ones. An appropriate level of socialisation with children of their own age is important for homeschoolers, so this is where groups like the aforementioned Hong Kong Homeschool Meetup Group prove essential.

Like any activity that challenges mainstream thinking, homeschool may be seen as an oddity, or even a threat. If you are unable to live ‘outside of the box,’ then homeschool is not for you. But we live in changing times, in which external factors (social unrest and pandemics) are keeping our kids out of school. What if homeschool is the way forward;
what if it’s already the new normal? By teaching our kids ourselves, we can provide them with stability during difficult times – homeschool may just be the cure we need.

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