Home education in Northern Ireland
For many parents, the notion that their children could be educated at home will fill them with dread. Others, perhaps those who work full-time, would find it impossible to spare the time needed to tutor their offspring.
There are, however, families in Northern Ireland who do choose to take care of their children’s education themselves by teaching them at home. At the moment, only around one per cent of school-age children here are educated in this way, but that figure is growing.
Contrary to some widely-held preconceptions about home schooling, you don’t need anyone’s permission to educate your child at home, although if the youngster is already registered with a school, you do have to inform the principal that you are taking over the job yourself.
In fact, the rules governing home education in Northern Ireland are fairly minimal – you don’t have to submit samples of your child’s work to anyone, subject yourself to home visits by the ‘authorities’ or have anyone assess your children’s progress. There is no requirement to follow the National Curriculum, your child need not sit formal examinations and you don’t have to adhere to the normal teaching hours of a school – indeed, you don’t even have to have formal lessons if you don’t wish to. Local authorities do have the power to enquire about the nature of the education that you’re giving you children, but the manner in which you teach and develop your child is entirely a matter for you.
You are not, however, likely to receive anything in the way of financial support for your endeavours, the time commitment is huge and the responsibility of ensuring that your child is properly prepared for life - and for work - will lie entirely with you aswell.
The McWhinneys from Groomsport in Co. Down are one of those families that have chosen to tutor their children at home. Roy and Amanda McWhinney have been educating five-year-old Hollie themselves since January last year. And when Groomsport Primary School closed its doors last June due to falling rolls, her 11-year-old brother, Ashley, joined her.
Amanda McWhinney says that home tutoring was something that they had considered for some time before eventually making the commitment. She’d seen an article in this magazine a couple of years ago which helped spark the idea in her mind and she’s read lots more material in the months since.
When Groomsport Primary School closed, the family did look at moving Ashley to another school in the area, but they were taken aback by the size of the classes in which Ashley would be taught – sometimes as many as 30 children.
“That was the main reason that we decided to home educate”, says Amanda. “Half of me was apprehensive after we decided to do it, but I was really quite excited too. Even today, I sometimes wake up and think, what have I done?”
Although husband Roy, a lighting design consultant, works full-time, Amanda says that the whole family – including the children – will have an input into the structure and content of the teaching programme.
And she has no time for the oft-cited argument that those children who are educated in a domestic setting will suffer socially from a lack of interaction with their peers.
“There’s a difference in mixing with large groups of kids and having the ability to mix”, says Amanda. “As it is, we meet up with families from HEdNI (a home education self-help group) from time to time, we take them out on field trips to W5 and the zoo and Ashley also goes to Boys’ Brigade, to Sunday school and to chess club. He has plenty of confidence and he gets on well with everybody.
“You could reverse the argument and say that our children learn to communicate with people of all ages, not just a bunch of kids their own age. They’re actually mixing in the real world.”
Another family in the Helen’s Bay area of Northern Ireland who spoke to ni4kids (but who wanted to remain anonymous), are teaching two of their three youngsters at home. One pupil is a nine-year-old girl, who has been taught at home since 2005, and the other is a seven-year-old boy, who is also autistic, and who has been home tutored for about two years.
You might think that teaching a child with special needs in a domestic environment would be particularly challenging, but his mum maintains that “it’s not really that different”:
“The style of learning that we use at home is very mixed; we set our own pace and it’s taught by me using a lot of different resources”, she explains. “I take stuff from the National Curriculum and I get a lot of material online. There are lots of different ways of learning at home, but the children are very much learning through their own interests.”
And she adds:
“Lots of parents do the ‘school in the home’ thing with strict lesson plans and teaching hours, we don’t do that, but we do have discussions about what we want to achieve in a day or a week.”
This family also has fairly frequent contact with other home educators and their families in Northern Ireland through the HEdNI group, which sometimes organises day trips to bring those involved together.
But are the numbers of home educators in the province increasing? She thinks that they are:
“A lot more people are contacting the (HEdNI) group through the website and making enquiries”, she says. “We’ve never regretted doing this ourselves and I’m just glad that people have the option to home educate if they want to do it.”
Thinking of home educating yourself? Here are some useful online resources:
* The HEdNI website is at: www.hedni.org
* The BBC offers a number of online resources to home educators, including:
• Key Stage 3 Bitesize at www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ks3bitesize
• GCSE Bitesize at www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize
• AS Guru at www.bbc.co.uk/education/asguru
• BBC Learning Zone at www.bbc.co.uk/learning
*Education Otherwise offers information, resources and support for parents, carers and young people who are interested in learning at home. Visit the site at www.education-otherwise.org.uk
*Home Education UK is Britain’s oldest continuously available home tutoring website. If you’re interested in learning at home, you can find out more and contact like-minded people all over the UK through this site – www.home-education.org.uk