When school is right at home

Parents of about 50 children in each cohort each year choose to homeschool their kids, taking on various curricula and approaches

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The homeschooled timetable for Shania, who turns nine in December, includes playing instruments, cooking and picking leaves for her caterpillars.

Jedidiah Eo, eight, has been learning Latin and the history of the Magna Carta.

These subjects - as well as others he takes, such as geography and science - are not part of the syllabus for pupils his age, who are in Primary 2 in mainstream schools.

They are part of his Classical Conversations homeschooling curriculum, which aims to develop a love of learning through a Christian worldview. It is one of several curricula, including the Ministry of Education (MOE) syllabus, which his mother, Mrs Elaine Eo, 40, has been using to homeschool her son since he was 2½.

His sister Sarah, six, is also homeschooled; and their youngest sibling Hannah, three, joins in where she can, for example, in their daily reading sessions.

Homeschooling encompasses a wide range of philosophies and educational approaches.

Homeschooler Jedidiah Eo, eight, learns Latin as part of his curriculum. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Besides parents who adhere to the MOE curriculum, there are families who follow other structured curricula or a mix of educational approaches. Some of them practise "unschooling", which is driven by the children's interests.

Yet others subscribe to 19th-century-born British educator Charlotte Mason's method, which includes learning through "living books", quality literature where the author is passionate about the subject; as well as an emphasis on nature and the outdoors.

Jedidiah and Sarah's homeschool routine starts at about 9am - they do chores such as making their beds and sweeping the floor, which Mrs Eo says is part of contributing to their household.

This is usually followed by an hour of desk work and two hours of reading in a group, in both English and Mandarin. The children then help with lunch by laying the table or cutting vegetables.

Afternoons can be spent on activities such as going to the park; playing board games; or meeting other homeschooling families.

The two older children also attend Chinese enrichment class as another avenue to communicate in the language.

History is Jedidiah's favourite subject. "I like the information and I'm mainly interested in Singapore's history, such as the PAP (People's Action Party) defeating Barisan Sosialis. I also want to find out more about today's politics, such as news about the AHTC (Aljunied-Hougang Town Council)," he says.

He reads books with titles such as Whither PAP's Dominance? and Lee's Lieutenants and can discuss the China-Taiwan relationship.

He has done practice test papers for upper-primary science and English that his mother occasionally gives him, pitched at a level she thinks he can handle and yet challenges him.

Mrs Eo, a former civil servant who became a stay-at-home mum, admits that Jedidiah is "advanced" for his age.

"We hope to develop our children to be independent learners," she says, adding that homeschooling for their household is also about building character and cultivating good habits.

Under the Compulsory Education Act, a child must attend a national primary school and parents who wish to homeschool their children must seek the Education Ministry's permission to have their kids exempted from compulsory education.

The period of compulsory education is limited to Primary 6 and all homeschooled children must take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

According to MOE, there are, on average, 50 children in each cohort each year who are homeschooled.

While few in number, homeschooling parents say their community is diverse and includes people of different races and religions; locals and expatriates; and parents of gifted children, as well as those whose children have special needs.

The Education Ministry, however, encourages children to attend mainstream schools.

Its spokesman says: "MOE would like all Singaporean children to attend our mainstream schools to acquire a common set of core values, knowledge and skills, interact and learn with fellow students, and grow up together so as to forge a common national identity and engender social cohesion."

Homeschooled children are also required to meet MOE's PSLE benchmark, which is "pegged at the 33rd percentile of all students taking four standard-level subjects in the PSLE of the same year".

This "ensures that homeschooled children meet certain educational standards so as to safeguard the educational interests of the child", the spokesman adds.

If a homeschooled child fails to meet this benchmark, he can retake the PSLE up to three times or opt to return to mainstream schools.

Mrs Eo, who is married to an engineer, says being a homeschooling parent "is an extension of what I'm supposed to do as a mother".

She adds: "Being patient helps. Being certain in what you want for your family, in persevering with homeschooling, is important because you will encounter naysayers."

Jedidiah likes being homeschooled: "I can have a lot of free time and I can be with my mother."

Just four pages of work a day

Homeschooling mum Dawn Fung, 36, expects her two daughters to do or read only one page of work daily for each of their subjects.

Mindful of the Ministry of Education's requirement that homeschooled children take the Primary School Leaving Examination, her children - Deborah, eight, and Hope, six - do assessment books and read books on English, Chinese, mathematics and science. They also have Chinese tuition as theirs is not a Mandarin-speaking family.

But "most of the day is spent playing or meeting friends", says Ms Fung, who is married to Mr George Chua, 43, a pastor.

Deborah and Hope play between three and six hours a day, she adds.

Ms Fung is a practitioner of the unschooling philosophy, where parents allow their children to pursue their interests.

Besides playing, Deborah and Hope are interested in gymnastics and art. Deborah asked to take gym classes after she watched YouTube videos on gymnastics and found that she could not do cartwheels. Their parents signed them up for enrichment classes in these two areas.

Ms Fung, a former teacher in a private school, says she "lets the child take the lead and allows her access to resources, for example, by exposing her to music and art".

For instance, she leaves the cover of the piano at their three-room HDB flat open all day, in case the children wish to tap out a few tunes.

The girls are also interested in the piano and enrolled in lessons last year, though Hope stopped earlier this year. She continues to teach herself to play, says Ms Fung.

The children are also exposed to "a feast of options" when Ms Fung, the administrator of the Homeschool Singapore website, and her girls meet other homeschooling families up to four times a week.

She organises a "co-op" for tweens writing poetry and her daughters have also attended baking sessions and water-themed playdates. Co- ops involve homeschooling families who organise activities to learn from and with one another.

Ms Fung admits she has had "kiasu" (afraid to lose) moments in homeschooling. When Deborah was doing well in mathematics, she bought her assessment books for Primary 3 - a grade higher than her mainstream school grade. It backfired when Deborah lost interest.

But she also sees her child becoming more "self-motivated" and picking up science assessment books on her own. Ms Fung says: "Education shouldn't take over your life. The luxury of homeschooling is that you are available for them. You have quantity of time with them, not just limited quality time."

More time outdoors for sports

Six months after Ameer Ihsan started formal education, his parents pulled him out of school.

The family had lived in Perth for five years before he enrolled in Primary 1 in Singapore in 2014.

He was used to an outdoorsy and sporty lifestyle in Australia and Ms Norainee Mohidu felt her son did not have enough time - after returning from school at about 2pm every day and doing homework - to do sports for a few hours like he used to.

Ameer, now nine, also could not sit still for long periods in school.

Ms Norainee, 35, who has been a stay-at-home mother since her son was born, says: "We had to choose. We knew he loves and needs sports."

Since she started homeschooling Ameer two years ago, her second son Khoaleel, six, has also joined them. Her youngest son, Yaseen, at three, is too young to be part of the full programme.

A typical school day for her two older boys involves spending three hours - from 9am to noon - learning at home using Ministry of Education (MOE) textbooks and workbooks, as well as doing assessment books.

The rest of the day is usually spent outdoors, sometimes with assessment books in tow if their work was not completed in the morning. The boys have no additional work.

They often spend afternoons on sports-focused playdates with other homeschooling families, or at classes for silat and parkour, an urban sport with moves such as running over obstacles, vaulting and climbing. They usually get home between 5 and 7pm.

The boys can pursue other interests too, as long as they catch up on the curriculum later.

Earlier this year, they wanted to cook and bake, and so they spent a month making food such as curries and bread with their mum.

Since last year, Ameer has taken part in four kids' triathlons, winning the last two.

Ms Norainee thinks that if she did not homeschool Ameer, he would not have been able to develop his talent in sports.

She first noticed his athletic aptitude when he started riding a bicycle without training wheels at about age three.

A love of sports runs in the family. Ms Norainee's husband, physiologist Ihsan Izzat, 36, is a fitness enthusiast who likes mountain biking. Khoaleel's favourite sport is swimming and Yaseen has mastered riding two-wheeled bikes at the same age his eldest brother did.

Ms Norainee appreciates the flexibility of homeschooling. She can spend as much time as she needs to ensure that Ameer has mastered a topic, such as multiplication, for instance, before moving on to another. "It's like one-on-one tuition," she says.

She administers tests for Ameer in four subjects - English, Malay, mathematics and science - twice a year. The scores are compiled for an annual progress report for homeschooled children, which is submitted to the Education Ministry.

She does not tell Ameer his scores as she feels that tests can induce "unnecessary anxiety" in children.

Although she is following the MOE syllabus, there are occasions when other parents ask her: "Are you sure they're learning enough?"

She says: "I sometimes worry they may not be on a par with their schooling peers."

She adds that the test papers from various schools that she gives Ameer every six months sometimes seem more difficult than the content in MOE-approved textbooks.

But other parents' criticisms ultimately do not bother her.

"That is more about satisfying other people's expectations of your kids. If Ameer was in school, he wouldn't have the time to pursue all that he wants in sports," she says.

Feeding caterpillars, collecting feathers

Violin practice, history, collecting leaves for the caterpillars, mathematics and cooking - all these were on Shania Goh's homeschooling timetable when The Sunday Times visited her.

It was a fairly typical routine for Shania, who is turning nine in December and whose mother, Ms Linda Khi, 45, embraces a mix of educational philosophies.

For instance, Ms Khi has a Montessori-inspired take on preparing the environment for a child's independent learning.

She lays out and rotates different reading materials on sofas and low tables - including Shakespeare; a book about heroes such as Florence Nightingale; and National Geographic magazines. This is to encourage Shania, whose two elder sisters were also homeschooled, to read the materials.

For history, the focus is on the Middle Ages. Ms Khi is teaching Shania about Sir Francis Drake, an Elizabethan mariner and explorer and the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Later, Shania helps middle sister Sara, 14, prepare lunch - tortillas, Greek salad and tomato soup.

In the middle of the day, she has "quiet time" during which she lies still and relaxes for 10 minutes or so, says Ms Khi. The idea is that children these days rarely get a chance to stop, stare and dream.

The several caterpillars Shania has are part of the Flying Creatures theme this year, taken from Apologia, a homeschool science curriculum. She feeds them leaves from the lime tree downstairs and about 20 have morphed into butterflies and been freed.

She has collected feathers from parrots and even a snowy owl. Science field trips this year have included visits to Jurong Bird Park and Science Centre Singapore.

While Ms Khi homeschools Shania, Sara has been mostly self-studying since sitting her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) two years ago.

Ms Khi says her firstborn Sophia, 16, stopped homeschooling at the start of this year when she received a scholarship to enter SJI International a year ahead of her peers.

Ms Khi, a former teacher, says of the homeschooling process for her children: "When they are in Primary 5, I start preparing them for the PSLE. They start practising past years' papers at the beginning of the Primary 6 year."

She is married to Mr Henry Goh, 48, a finance director.

Sara takes online courses in French and German and also learns history partly with a teacher via Skype.

This year and next year, she will be taking 11 subjects for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, an international certification for the end of secondary school.

Sara, who plays five instruments and also takes dance, yoga and taekwondo classes, says: "Homeschooling teaches you to manage your time. I can take breaks whenever I want."

As for Shania, she likes "getting to play all the time".

However, she sees one downside to homeschooling: "You don't get canteen food every day."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline When school is right at home. Subscribe