Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET
Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET

There’s been a glut of memes about SA parents’ foray into "teaching" their housebound kids. Many are tinged with hysteria. "It may take a village to raise a child, but I swear it’s gonna take a vineyard to home-school one" was one of a number featuring alcohol in the equation.

With the Covid-19 lockdown and shutting of schools, parents (mainly moms) were jolted into the reality of having to take on their kids’ education. For some this has been a joy, or at least a chance to get greater insight into their learning. Others have been counting the days until their kids can return to school.

The fact is, though, that what most parents have been doing over the past three months isn’t home-schooling. Rather, it’s been supporting their children’s learning from home. By and large, schools have continued to take responsibility for creating and providing the curriculum. What we’ve been faced with during the pandemic is more like "emergency remote learning on an online platform".

Clinical psychologist Ruth Ancer says parents have been struggling with this kind of schooling from home and putting pressure on themselves.

Ancer says it’s unrealistic to expect parents to school children like this, especially in SA, with such a huge gap in resources. "A lot of the private schools are very well resourced and most of the children at those schools have access to technology, but the majority of children in the country don’t have access to resources or technology. We’re talking about so many different communities."

It helps when schools have been clear about what they expect. "What schools are obviously trying to do within the constraints of their resources is continue with activities, and it’s good for children to have some stimulation," she says.

"My therapeutic approach is we all need to survive this. Our lives have changed so dramatically in such a short space of time … there’s so much pressure and we have to earn a living if possible."

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Ancer says parents need to relax in terms of schooling. "This is not a time for children to have to excel, to achieve their potential. This is a time when families just have to get through and cope. It’s useful if the family has the resources to use technology so that the kids are not doing absolutely nothing in terms of mental stimulation, but people need perspective."

But what about taking the plunge and deciding to home-school completely? As to which children would benefit from this, Ancer says it’s very much about the individual. "In the past if you struggled at school you just fell by the wayside. There’s a lot more recognition that the traditional schooling model isn’t for everyone. There are children who just struggle in very big environments, who need one-on-one attention because of learning difficulties, or socially or emotionally they would do better elsewhere. It depends on the nature and needs of the child.

"What I’ve seen is children who struggle in a large environment can benefit from the intimacy and individual attention of home-schooling."

But she notes clear disadvantages such as little or no exposure to sports participation and fewer options in terms of different types of friends.

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

"It’s always important if a child is unhappy to get to the root of it. Sometimes they might be unhappy wherever they are. I don’t believe in keeping children in environments where they’re not happy, but sometimes the child can take the problem wherever they go."

The real deal

It might come as a surprise to those who cannot wait to see their offspring back through the school gates, but home-schooling is among the fastest-growing types of education formats worldwide. According to the 2011 census, about 57,000 kids in SA were being home-schooled. By 2017 estimates were 100,000. In the US, more than 2-million kids are learning at home.

Capetonian Clare de Beer went the home-schooling route about a year ago for her five children. The three younger ones are using virtual school Teneo, and she’s using Footprints on Our Land for her high schoolers, which she says includes a "beautifully set out course, including language, history and art". De Beer is also completing a teaching degree and runs a playschool.

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Her children were at a private school in Cape Town, but they found it incredibly expensive and did not like what their children were being exposed to in the mainstream education system. There was less discipline than they wanted, classes were too large and teachers weren’t coping.

De Beer says there are pros and cons to home-schooling.

"They’re not with their friends all the time, but we are a big family and they have lots of cousins.

"It’s the best thing we ever did and now it’s even better because we’re ahead of the curve," she says, referring to the school closures.

Bouwe van der Eems works in the IT sector and runs the SA home-school website sahomeschoolers.org. He is also chair of the Pestalozzi Trust, a legal defence fund for home and civil education. He and his wife, Debbie, home-schooled their five children.

Provisions for home education were enacted in the SA Schools Act of 1996.

"It was the early 2000s and we just thought it would be good for our family life to educate them at home because you spend more time with them," Van der Eems says. Their children are now all adults, with varying careers that range from engineering to ballet teaching and watchmaking.

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

"Home-schooling is not for everyone; it depends on your family circumstances. You have to explore whether it will work for you. It doesn’t depend only on the parents; it also depends on the children. You may have a child who wants lots of social interaction a lot of the time, then maybe school is better."

He says there’s no correlation between social status and the success of home education. "Qualified and unqualified can do it, rich and poor can do it. We started with a formal curriculum, a full service, and as we gained confidence we started mixing things and using subjects from this curriculum and another."

The current estimate is that 140,000 SA children are being home-schooled, he says. That’s less than 1% of the school population.

Home education is the fastest-growing education type globally, "even in countries where it is illegal like Sweden, Germany and Cuba", he says.

"I think education is a means through which government has control over what the next generation thinks. That is why they established public schools. That is why they don’t like education that isn’t under their control. The German government always uses the argument that education will promote parallel societies. What is ironic is the German government forbids home education to prevent parallel but they subsidise schools in other countries to promote parallel education."

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Van der Eems says they chose material in line with their values. "We are a Christian family so we used a predominantly Christian curriculum."

He’s happy they did this and encourages people to explore whether it’s an option for them. "Every family is unique, every child is unique. Everyone must discover whether it’s for them."

With schools closed many parents feel they are forced to home-school, he says.

"What they try to do is duplicate school at home. But that is often going to cause problems. School education and home education are totally different forms of education. If you try to simulate a school at home, it’s often very difficult and can be a negative experience. If you approach and explore the different methodologies, you can pick what will work for you.

"For these parents who are suddenly confronted with home-schooling it’s difficult. They mustn’t duplicate school, they must research what’s available and investigate whether or not it’s for them."

Businesses, staff and kids

From the colleague whose kids scream through Zoom meetings to the one who’s shattered and grumpy because they’ve had to work late into the night to get projects done and help with high school algebra, working from home with children isn’t for sissies. But it’s also a real trial for businesses in terms of productivity and keeping projects on track.

Nikki Bush, a human potential and parenting expert who works with businesses and schools, says one of the biggest risks to businesses in terms of productivity is the adjustment of having a large number of employees working from home. “This all happened overnight without a dress rehearsal. Everyone will get good at this new way of working, but they are not there yet. Both management and employees need to adjust their expectations and reinvent the working day to accommodate families in different stages of lockdown or rephasing in,” she says. Her parent support programmes have supported companies and schools to create realistic expectations and practical solutions.

Businesses are grappling with ways to support this new work-from-home dynamic, and are having to come up with workable solutions. One of Bush’s telecoms clients, for instance, has created a no-meeting zone between noon and 2pm each day for employees to catch up with their families, carry out domestic responsibilities or take a break from being in front of a screen. It’s early days and murky territory, but companies are going to have to engage with this new landscape — where work and private lives are suddenly blurred — and problem-solve for employee and employer. Good communication with team members so that they feel included, a lot of empathy, checking in to see how staff are feeling and having realistic expectations about performance are solid starting points to manage this weird new world.