Out of the classroom
FAMILY EFFORT: Home schooling is a way of life for Debbie Ball and her family.
The country’s school-children may have filed back to the classrooms this month, but that wasn’t the case for every kid on the block. ANNA PEARSON takes a look at do-it-yourself education.
Debbie Ball’s three oldest children didn’t get a school holiday this summer. That’s because the Ball children don’t go to school.
Michael, 16, David, 14, and Esther, 7, who live with their parents in Upper Moutere, belong to one of New Zealand’s 3541 home-schooling families.
For Mrs Ball and husband Steve, who also have a four-year-old, a two-year-old and another Ball on the way, home-schooling is a way of life.
In their gravel driveway off the winding Moutere Highway, a shiny blue Bedford bus is parked outside the Ball residence, a restored 100-year-old wooden home.
“We lived in that bus for seven months,” says Mrs Ball.
“Then Steve built the shed and we lived there for four years. Later we had this house relocated from Vanguard St.”
Mrs Ball settles into a chair, one that she knows she can get out of, and is surrounded by her three well-spoken, almost British sounding, older children.
Nathan and Jesse are helping Mr Ball collect firewood outside.
The family doesn’t home-school, she says – they “home educate”, mainly because of their view that age-segregated school environments are not natural. “A family unit is natural.”
Also, with home-schooling each child can work with a system that works for them and they are not competing with 30 other children for a teacher’s attention, Mrs Ball says.
“And we are not being churned out of a school like clones,” chips in David, jumping up and grabbing off the fridge a list of things he has to do by the end of the day. One of the things crossed off with a hastily drawn scribble is “have a wash”.
For Michael and Esther, on the other hand, she writes tasks on red pieces of card and places them in individual work-boxes, perched on a well-stocked bookcase. They prefer a more tangible approach.
By the end of the day, the boxes will be empty and David’s list crossed off.
There are two home-schooling groups in the Nelson Tasman region – Nelson Christian Home Educators and the non-Christian Tasman Home School Support Group (or Tasman Home Educators). The Tasman group claims a wide variety of families and circumstances among its members – parents who teach only some of their children at home, those whose offspring have never been inside a kindergarten or school, those who write their own curriculums, those who teach their children through the Correspondence School.
Group member Sarah Jones, who is home-educating her two sons, says whatever people’s circumstances, “they all share the desire to raise children in a way that gives individual purpose to their lives”.
“The best thing about home educating is really getting to know your children properly and seeing them flourish. I couldn’t really tell you a hardest thing as I think we’ve got it worked out well – we have friends who can take the kids sometimes so I get time alone or time with my husband, and whilst the lifestyle means you don’t both get to go out to work and earn heaps, we have all we need to be healthy and well.”
The Balls are Christian, “but you can’t pigeonhole home-educators in any way”, argues Mrs Ball.
Her home-schooling journey began back in the family’s blue Bedford bus in 1993, when Michael was born.
She was surprised at how protective she felt. She didn’t want to be away from her son, which at first left her feeling trapped, but she soon learned to enjoy the new relationship.
“When Michael was one, I was advised to look ahead and consider putting his name down at a pre-school. I felt a little ill thinking about it. Why should someone else have my baby for hours a day, watching him grow and change, playing with him, teaching him and interacting with him?”
As time went on, many of Mrs Ball’s friends took the traditional route of pre-school and playcentre and she was concerned that her then two and four year olds were missing out.
So she visited a playcentre, kept her feelings to herself, and watched Michael’s reaction.
“He was overwhelmed by the noise and activity level. His usual ability to concentrate and enjoy a task was gone, and he was frustrated by having to deal with the behaviour of the other children.
“We were all so relieved to go home and pick up where we left off that morning reading, playing and being together.”
As each of her children approached their sixth birthday, the legal age in New Zealand for enrolment in a registered school, Mrs Ball applied for and was granted an exemption from schooling by the Ministry of Education.
The Education Act 1989 secures the right of all New Zealand children to an education. Those between six and 16 must be enrolled in and attending a registered school.
However parents can apply for an exemption provided they can demonstrate that they will be able to teach their children “at least as regularly and as well as in a registered school”.
They also have to describe their knowledge and understanding of the curriculum areas they intend to cover; and how they intend to provide for their children’s needs for social contact.
Home-schooling families receive up to $743 annually per child to pay for resources and supervision.
So, outside of the school gates, what has the Ball family been doing for the last 16 years?
“We read a lot, took walks together, went to the library, the park, the playground, lots of puzzles, games, making huts, collecting boxes and cans and making things, moving furniture to make cosy reading areas, memorising scripture and poetry, simple maths games …” The list goes on.
While the rest of the country’s school children had a long summer holiday, Mrs Ball’s children didn’t.
They worked right through, apart from the three weeks the family took off when Mr Ball had leave from his joinery job in Motueka.
What about socialisation? School playground banter?
It’s overrated, says Mrs Ball.
“We joke with other home-schoolers that we should have a T-shirt that says `socialisation is not an issue’.”
However, the principal of Henley School in Richmond and a former principal of Upper Moutere School, John Armstrong, disagrees.
“I see socialisation as really important.
“When you go out into the real world, you need to get along with people in teams.
“If those opportunities are not provided, it makes it difficult for children later on.”
Mr Armstrong says there were quite a few home-schoolers in the area when he was working at Upper Moutere School but after a certain point, at about year five or six, home-schooled children tended to join the state school system.
The home-schooled kids, he says, were different from other children.
“They were usually pretty competent in science and the living world and were very practical and good problem solvers.
“However, they often lacked being able to work in a group and it usually took them a wee while to settle in. [By the time they arrived] a lot of them were almost craving for social interaction.”
AS WELL, schools have an abundance of resources in their favour, Mr Armstrong says.
“Schools are well set up.
“We have literally got thousands and thousands of dollars worth of resources,” he says.
Garin College Principal John Boyce and his wife home-schooled their two youngest children in the 1970s because they didn’t want them to start formal schooling until they were seven.
Through the experience and over the years as a teacher, Mr Boyce has met a number of other families who home-school for various reasons.
“The kids are taught really well. They get an education that you can’t get in a public school.
“I have seen some excellent stuff happen, I have seen some average stuff happening, and I have seen some terrible stuff happening.
“Most people who are in home-schooling do their very, very best, but the ones I worry about are the ones who just can’t be bothered. It’s a form of child abuse.”
But it seems that the Education Review Office (ERO), which monitors home-schooling just like in state schools, is not overly worried.
ERO’s public affairs national manager Jenny Clark says all ERO reviewers are required to do is to make sure the “as regularly and as well” threshold is being met.
“We don’t actually go beyond that,” she says.
When the ERO reviewed its spending last year, ERO chief review officer Graham Stoop said home-schooling reviews were “too low risk to the education priorities of the Government” and scheduled reviews would cease in July.
In 2007-2008, ERO did home-school reviews of 644 students from a total of 6169 nationally. Only 35 of the 644 reviews were below the required threshold.
“This has been the pattern for many years,” wrote Mr Stoop.
Subsequently, ERO is now only required to do home-school reviews when requested by the Secretary for Education.
Nelson Christian Home Educators co-ordinator Ainsley Brett, whose children Shanelle and Travis have been home-schooled, says the cuts are a shame. “I think it’s sad. Reviews are a safety net for the odd family, but also a useful tool for the rest of us.
“Even though we only saw ERO twice [during Shanelle’s and Travis’ time being home-schooled], you could ask them questions, to find out if you were doing all right.”
Mrs Brett says the average home-schooled child is better off at home than in a school, away from bullying and being a “number in the crowd”.
The Nelson Mail