‘A much more creative approach’: remote learning may be over, but home schooling in Australia is on the rise

Even as the number of home schooled children in many states has recently doubled, experts say if you are considering the switch, do it for the right reasons

This week millions of kids around Australia returned excitedly – or nervously – to their bustling classrooms, but in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, Caitlin Hughes’ four daughters have reopened their school books in the quiet of their home.

Aged 15, 12, 10 and seven, the girls have set their new academic and personal goals for the year and are happy in their routine; the family has been home schooling for nine years. The youngest two get organised at the kitchen table close to their mother, while the eldest find a quieter space upstairs in the “schoolroom”.

They do their book work – maths and literacy based on the Victorian curriculum – in the morning, then spend the afternoon helping out on the family’s hobby farm or working on their own projects, such as building a chicken coop or baking for a market stall.

“I love teaching and I get to teach the children who I love most,” says Hughes, a primary school teacher who works one day a week. “It’s also more efficient. What takes me an hour in the classroom takes me 15 minutes at home. If I have to explain a concept, I can see straight away if they get it or not. Whereas when I’m at the front of a class, I have no idea who’s understanding what I’m talking about.”

There are other benefits too, she says.

“We love being together as a family and we have a bit more control over who’s influencing our children. Even when we go to home school groups, we can pick the groups.”

Hughes says that while many people worry about the social aspect of home schooling, there is plenty of opportunity to connect with other home schoolers, and the children are not segregated into age groups.

“I always notice how well the kids of different ages play together, including the teenagers.”

Justine Curran, from western Sydney, says the “bland” experience of remote learning during Covid made her want to make education more creative and individual for her 12-year-old girl and seven-year-old boy.

The family is now in their third year of home schooling and plan to continue. Curran uses a wide variety of resources and says home schooling has allowed her children to take control of their learning in a way they are unable to at school.

“The school work was just really dull. Since I’ve been home schooling, I’ve just found all these different platforms and ways for the kids to learn that provide a much more creative approach to education. We have lots of flexibility and I can find the best way to engage my child, which makes it more enjoyable for them.”

Her part-time job as a photographer means she is able to fit any editing work and photoshoots around the school day. The flexibility has also brought an unforeseen benefit: it allows Justine to better manage her long Covid, which has debilitated her for months.

“I’ve been too sick to do the school run,” she says. “We do the book work on the days I’m feeling good and the children are around to help cook our meals and look after me. So that’s a learning experience for them, too.”

a young boy stands with a teenage girl who holds a family pet chicken, which the boy is gently patting
The ‘bland’ experience of remote learning during Covid made Justine Curran want to make education more creative for her children. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Lyndal Halliday, of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, has a demanding full-time job as a chief of staff on a royal commission, and never planned to home school, but this year she will teach her 13-year-old son, who has ADHD and social and emotional issues.

The remote learning experience made her understand just how difficult school was for him: he simply stopped going.

“It was like trying to fit a square in a round hole. In the end, I became sick of advocating, trying to get the school to support him. Because he’s bright, he wasn’t a priority. So we thought, let’s just do this at home.”

Halliday, who works from home two days each week, plans to use a home schooling provider that offers the programs required to follow the national syllabus, which she estimates will take her son around four hours each day to complete.

“This will give him more time to participate in family life. He’s worried about not having his friends around but there are so many home school networks around, I think he can meet people.”

Home schooling on the rise

Home schooling is different to remote learning; it is when parents have control. Those who opt to home school must register with their state education authority and submit a plan showing how they will educate their child in key learning areas according to the curriculum, which must be approved.

However, there is considerable freedom in how these key learning areas can be taught. Some parents subscribe to home schooling providers; others adopt a freer approach and find their own resources.

In NSW there were 8,993 children registered for home schooling in 2021, up from 4,698 in 2017. In Victoria there were 11,332 registered, up from 4,743 in 2016. And in Queensland, registrations have jumped from 3,232 in 2018 to 8,461 in 2022.

Home schooled children are not able to sit final exams, but with many institutions offering alternative pathway programs, they can still be eligible for university.

Dr Rebecca English, senior lecturer in education at Queensland University of Technology, says there are two groups of parents who home school in Australia: “deliberates” and “accidentals”.

“The deliberates were always going to home school according to their religion or values,” English says. “The vast majority never set out to homeschool, but then their kid started school and everything went pear-shaped.”

Covid exacerbated the trend by giving parents a front-row seat to what was happening at school and the issues their children might have been facing, English says.

“Parents may have looked at the school system and thought, I could do better.”

a woman holds several books that are learning materials for home schooling
Some of the learning materials Justine home schools her 7-year-old with. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Psychotherapist and education expert Dr Kate Burton is a specialist in gifted and neurodivergent children. She says it is no longer acceptable to have an education system primarily geared to people who are neurotypical.

“A child with autism, for example,” says Burton, “processes language differently so they need lessons delivered in a different format. Parents are becoming more aware of these learning difficulties.”


Burton believes teachers must undergo more training on what it means to be neurodivergent and schools must offer more specialist programs.

English says schools must become more flexible, which could mean moving kids between grades for different subjects according to their abilities rather than their age; having a day to work on a special project; there being a stronger focus on practical skills and creative pursuits; or even part-time schooling.

English and Burton both advocate for choice, saying home schooling can be a good option for children with learning difficulties, who are intellectually advanced, or who are having a negative experience at school, such as bullying.

But the majority of children thrive in the school environment, they say.

English says it can better prepare children for life after school.

“What school offers that home school doesn’t is that interaction with people who aren’t like you or who don’t like you. Sometimes it can be really good to have the experience of learning how to control your feelings in an environment where you really aren’t in control.”

School may also be the best option for families where parents do not have the financial freedom to home school, or the flexibility to work from home, she adds.

Burton says it is important for families to consider what works best for them.

“If you’re spending hours after school helping your child decompress, you need to consider your options.

“But for the right children, school is a wonderful experience, the curriculum is set at the right pace and they have access to lots of different subjects. Lots of schools include social and emotional programs now, too.

“… [children] also get to build positive peer relationships, the ability to work in groups and time-management skills,” she adds.

For parents considering home schooling, Burton advises them to base the decision on what is best for their child, not what is best for them or on their own experiences.

“If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If you’ve got a happy and content child, then you’re obviously doing something right and so is the school system.

“And if they’re enjoying school and you withdraw them, all you’re teaching them is to not trust their own experience.”

Caroline Riches

The GuardianTramp

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