September 22, 2014

How home education works in New Zealand

 

By way of introduction, to show we have at least a bit of an insight into how home education works: My wife Barbara and I have 8 children (birth dates being 1980, 81, 84, 87, 92, 96, 2000 & 2005, the last 4 being adopted), none of whom have ever been to school. We have run many national and local conferences on home education since 1987 and have worked full time for the Home Education Foundation since 1998. Barbara is a 5th generation New Zealander on both sides; I was born and grew up near Fresno, California, and have been in NZ since 1973. Each of us was schooled in the secular, compulsory system of our respective countries.

The Home education environment in New Zealand has to be the best almost anywhere. The law is clear: From age 6 until 16th birthday, one must be enrolled at and attend a registered school….all schools of every kind are registered here. To be exempted from this law, that is, to home educate, one needs to apply for an exemption certificate from the Ministry of Education (MoE).

The law is rather vague at this point: it says that to get an exemption, the MoE “must be satisfied that the child will be taught at least as regularly and well as in a registered school.” The emphasis is on “taught”, not learning outcomes….that is an emphasis we home educators have been making and insisting upon, even though the MoE would like to do otherwise. The words “regularly” and “well” are not legally defined, although the MoE has come up with brilliant working definitions: They say “regularly” means “some commitment to routine” and that “well” means “communicating something of your curriculum vision….showing evidence of planning and balance”. A “registered” school does not mean a state school: all schools in NZ are registered. So the standards of regularity and wellness relate to the whole range of schooling institutions, from the most straight-laced academy of incredibly high standards to the most off-the-wall alternative school to the hare krishna school to the Muslim school and all the Christian Schools, etc., etc.

The exemption application is basically a series of questions asking you what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. A separate one is required for each child. It is like a statement of intent. Once you “satisfy” the MoE and they give you the exemption, you never have to negotiate for one again…..it is yours until the child turns 16. It does take some hours to write up the answers properly, and it is almost standard practise that the MoE sends it back asking for more information. But with persistence you always get one.

After that the MoE sends you a statutory declaration twice a year, a statement you sign before a Justice of the Peace, which simply says, “I….solemnly swear that I am still home schooling as regularly and well, etc., etc.,” Once you sign that you are eligible for a grant, money with no strings attached at all. The amounts are: $743 for the first child, $632 for the second, $521 for the third, and $372 for each one after that. They pay half these amounts into your bank account in June and again in December. There are no accounting or curriculum requirements of any kind apart from signing the declaration.

Nothing in the Education Act mentions any subjects that any school has to teach. There is no legal requirement even for schools to teach reading, writing, arithmetic or anything else. There are, however, National Curriculum Guidelines. As a home educator, you do not have to follow the Guidelines. You have an incredible amount of freedom and flexibility to put together your own curriculum tailor made for each child. The MoE, however, does look for the basics and does expect a reasonable academic curriculum: the 3Rs plus science would cover it. It is the way you write your exemption, not what you say, that wins it for you. They are obliged, pretty much, to accept any philosophical approach to the educational task, as long as you can explain it to them clearly and satisfy them that you know what you’re doing. They really only turn down incompetents who don’t even ask other home educators for help in filling out the exemption application.

Somewhere down the track, after getting your exemption, you may be contacted by another state organisation, the Education Review Office, (ERO). They are like inspectors, who have a look at what you’re doing. If they like it, they send a report saying so to the MoE. If not, you will probably have another review by the ERO in six months. So we advise people that they must make sure they are really prepared for the review when and if it comes. You get at least a month’s notice, and then you can say the date they selected doesn’t suit and suggest a couple other dates another two months down the track. That is all perfectly fine, no problem. One can be as Christian as you like, as unschooly or alternative as you like in both your exemption application and your review….they have no objective standards against which to measure you, only the personal “professional” opinion of the person looking at your case at the moment. So far as we’ve seen over the years, they are professional enough to fairly evaluate any reasonable educational approach, as long as it appears to have a body of philosophical literature behind it somewhere.

When the ERO comes, if you are doing something totally different from what you wrote in your exemption application, no problem. Both the MoE and the ERO have said to me, “Of course you will change from what you originally write in your exemption….we’d be worried if you didn’t change!” All the ERO needs to see is that you know what you’re doing and can explain it to them when they come. They like to visit in your home. Most NZers allow this. I strongly urge against this. Those who get negative reports from the ERO suddenly know exactly why I urge them to have their reviews at a neutral venue outside the home….you tend to be too relaxed and make it into a friendly affair where you are being host to a guest in your home, when in reality this ERO person is from a very powerful bureaucracy that is sitting in judgment on your family’s chosen lifestyle and how you relate educationally to your own children. Level the playing field and stage the review in a neutral venue: it helps you prepare more and also to come across more professional.

So once you have your exemption, you really never have any more contact with the MoE except for the declaration. You may or may not see the ERO. The head guy of ERO is really pro-home education at the moment. The grant money (called the home education allowance) is paid out until the child stops being home educated or until he turns 16. However, if the child keeps being home educated, the MoE will pay the home education allowance until age 19, as long as the exemption was gained before the 16th birthday.

There are a number of email discussion groups in NZ that do a roaring trade in curriculum materials, second hand resources of all kinds, plus tips and advice on everything. We publish the only national newsletter that covers legislative, legal, professional stuff, what the schools are doing, what the universities are doing, etc. We also publish the only national journal for Christian home educators. I’ll put descriptions of each below along with some email groups.