As the public-school sector lurches from crisis to crisis, there’s an education revolution taking place in SA: home schooling. This once-niche practice is generating increased appeal, along with its associated spin-offs such as learning and tutor centres.

Home schooling was once derided as a fringe activity of the loony right or left. But the reasons parents choose to school children at home are varied. They range from distrust of the public system to financial considerations (no uniforms, fees or transport costs) and religious qualms. Or there may be issues of special needs, “fitting in” or sexual orientation.

Karin van Oostrum is the manager at the Pestalozzi Trust in Tshwane, an educational consultant NGO whose area of speciality is home schooling. She reluctantly estimates there are between 50,000 and 100,000 home-schooled children across SA from grade R to matric, but adds that it’s almost impossible to be definitive because of under-reporting.

[Home schooling has] provided my two children with a different quality of life ... Government schools don’t cater for the top end or the bottom. They cater for the middle
Dana Braithwaite

Another home-schooling expert puts the number at 400,000, the rough equivalent of 400 regular schools with 1,000 learners each. This, in effect, means home schoolers (if the figure is correct) constitute another province of learners in the education landscape.

By law, all home-schooled children between seven and 15 must register with the national department of basic education. Those older than 15 are not legally bound to do so, further confusing the stats.

In reality, registration seldom — if ever — happens, leading to a statistical vacuum. Parents cite red tape, intimidating home visits post-registration and general lack of empathy from departmental officials.

“And then they try to force the government-school syllabus down your throat,” says a parent who prefers not to be named. “This is counterproductive because the need to escape that syllabus is one of the reasons the kids are being home schooled in the first place.”

Matters are further complicated by the fact that there is little trustworthy information on the learning and tutor centres that are ostensibly designed to serve the home-schooled learner.

Van Oostrum says such centres, along with cottage schools, are sometimes bracketed in the national department of education as “independent schools” though, strictly speaking, they are not schools at all.

Many such establishments deal with the department as little as possible, fearing punitive measures and being forced to teach syllabi that they believe are limited.

Department officials say they, too, are in an invidious position. There are fly-by-night practitioners out there, often but not exclusively confined to the lower reaches of the market. The moral panic in secondary education makes the landscape almost impossible to police and assessment can’t take place if schools aren’t registered.

As one industry observer put it: “Undoubtedly there’s a regulation lag, where reality on the ground outstrips legislation’s ability to regulate.”

Van Oostrum talks of a review of home schooling by the national department of education. “But it’s been going on since October 2014 and progress is slow,” she says.

Moses Simelane, who is heading the review, failed to respond to e-mailed questions by the time of going to press.

Issues of nomenclature and statistics aside, what is home schooling? It happens when parents of school-going children decide to take responsibility for their education or to entrust it to members of the extended family.

There are often religious imperatives at work and, occasionally, unstated racial suspicion. Special needs sometimes play a part: children with attention deficit disorder and anything on the wide spectrum of Asperger syndrome and autism are often home or special schooled.

Parents of home schoolers often have some professional or semiprofessional teaching experience, or have been associated with the profession in some way. The Internet, and the relatively straightforward access it provides to local and overseas accredited syllabi like the Cambridge certificate, or the American GED school-leaving certificate has made home schooling far easier for those with computers and access to the Internet.

“It’s provided my two children with a different quality of life and allowed my daughter to be flexible about her ballet, which she’s serious about,” says Dana Braithwaite, a home-school tutor in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs. “Government schools don’t cater for the top end or the bottom. They cater for the middle.”

While broad strokes describe the general situation, there is a great deal of individual variation when it comes to reasons for home schooling.

Lauryan Ritzlmayr is the owner of Explorer World Learning Centre in northern Johannesburg and the mother of three home-schooled boys.

Her oldest child is transgender and his early educational experiences were traumatic. “He was diagnosed with borderline clinical depression and extreme anxiety from an unacceptably young age, so home schooling really made sense to us,” she says.

Other parents tell similar tales. Finances are an issue, as are class sizes at government schools. Sometimes it is simply a case of wanting to maximize precious time with children.

Parents of home schoolers often seek outside specialist help. This is where learning centres and tutor centres come in.

As the owner of a learning centre, Ritzlmayr provides additional resources for home-school families to dip into and use on a needs basis. “We have between 20 and 25 children here on an average day,” she says. “As well as, say, someone who comes in and teaches computer coding, we offer extramural classes: violin and piano lessons, yoga, woodwork. There are social activities and outings. [The children] can play together.”

A tutor centre is slightly different.

Christo Wessels manages two Dynamic Intervention Tutor Centres in Boksburg on Johannesburg’s East Rand, and has done so for 13 years. His mission is to gather home-schooled children in a central place to provide them with access to specialised tutors, lowering the cost of one-on-one tuition.

His centres, he emphasises, are not schools. “You’re talking about private tuition fees ranging between R150/hour and R180/hour,” he says. “We find that we can bring that down considerably. We’re charging a third of that.”

The authority of his tutor centres is provided by the materials they teach — and the way in which such providers are regulated and accredited. Impak, based in Centurion, is a curriculum provider, and Wessels’ tutor centres teach Impak materials aligned to government’s national curriculum & assessment policy statement.

Impak’s Danielle Barfoot says the company started as a curriculum provider for home schoolers, with 400 subscribers in 2002. Projections for this year take the number over the 17,000 mark. Sensing a gap in the market, the organisation has branched out aggressively in the past couple of years.

“In 2014 we expanded our offering to include a broad range of educational products and services for schools and tutors,” says Barfoot.

So much for the upside of home schooling. What, however, of the camaraderie, fun and social growth that comes with schools? The school play, the spelling bee and the debating society?

While the reasons for home schooling may be difficult to fault, the ethos of home schooling can rest on a well-meaning fallacy: the need to protect children from the cruelties of an indifferent world.

Those opposed to home schooling will say that the reality is that this is the world in which all learners must eventually make their way.

What it means: Numbers range from 50,000 to 400,000 home-schooled children in SA

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