Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The home schooling option

IN this third of a four-part series on education, The Nut Graph attempts to examine the problems that have become entrenched in the national school system. While public schools were reliable and multi-racial centres of education for Malaysian children not too long ago, today, parents who can afford it are sending their children to private schools. Those who can't, opt for Chinese vernacular schools. There also seems to be a growing trend towards home schooling.

Do these trends indicate that the public school system is failing us? How did it come to this? And what needs to be done to stem the decline? Deborah Loh and Koh Lay Chin attempt to answer these questions.

KV Soon and children with library behind them
KV Soon with daughters Amrita (left) and Samanta in a homeschool session

HOME schooling began in Malaysia about 20 years ago, and is today done by between 500 to 1,000 families or more, estimates KV Soon who home schools his three children. Even though home schooling is only done by a minority of Malaysian children, practitioners say it is a growing trend.

Exact numbers are unknown though since no census of home-schoolers has been attempted. Still, the trend towards home schooling suggests that there is continued disillusionment with the national education system.

Common complaints include undue emphasis on academic achievement and lack of personal development. What it boils down to, home schooling parents feel, is the quality of teachers in national schools and the confines of a structured system that allows for little creativity and development of life skills.

Beyond the system

Soon, who runs Learning Beyond Schooling, a resource blog and support network for home school practitioners tells The Nut Graph that more parents have shown an interest in home schooling. This was especially after the government reversed its six-year policy to teach Mathematics and Science in English. Indecision over the maximum number of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) subjects allowed also showed "a lack of vision" in the national education policy, he notes.

But while flip-flop policy decisions are a strong reason why parents opt for home schooling, Soon notes that a greater concern is whether children are picking up the right values.

In a mid-2009 informal e-mail survey of the 100 parents on his network, the majority of respondents listed inculcation of values as the first reason why they preferred home schooling. The second highest reason was the desire for more spiritual or religious emphasis in education. Frustration with the public schools system was third.

Interestingly, he adds, what used to be a mainly urban Chinese Malaysian phenomenon is now gaining ground among Malay Malaysian and Indian Malaysian parents. And an increasing number of home schooling parents regardless of race are in the 25 to 36 age group.

"I think the trend reflects the younger generation's willingness to question and explore alternatives. It's sort of reflective of the overall political and social change in people's mindsets," Soon says.

Lifestyle change

Learning through playing — Hafiza and her three older children at school
(pic courtesy of Hafiza Abd Rahman)

More Malay Malaysian parents are interested in home schooling but many are unsure about sacrificing time and finances, says Hafiza Abd Rahman, 25, in a phone interview. She and her husband school their four children aged 18 months to six years on the road while travelling for work as web designers.

Hafiza, who runs an online forum of mainly Malay Malaysian home-schoolers called Malaysia Homeschool Unite says full-time home schooling involves a level of personal commitment that often requires one parent giving up his or her career. It's a lifestyle change few are willing to make. To introduce the concept gradually, she runs workshops teaching parents how to be more involved in their children's lives after schooling hours.

"Many Malay [Malaysian] parents are interested but don't dare to do it because of financial issues. But my husband and I believe that the benefits are more. We can build our children's character and moral intelligence in a way schools cannot," says Hafiza. For her, the decision to home school was made primarily so she could breastfeed all her children. She also feels that public or private school systems result in children being spoon fed.

"Home schooling has allowed my children to develop skills and knowledge according to their different personalities. There should be diversity in education to bring out each child's passion, instead of placing all children like sardines in one tin," she says.

Human capital problem

pitching purple tent on the lawn
Home school includes learning different skills, like pitching a tent
(pic courtesy of Hafiza Abd Rahman)

The pros and cons of home schooling aside, early childhood education expert Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng attributes its increased popularity to certain weaknesses in the public school system.

"The weaknesses stem from the quality of human capital. Great programmes and systems are useless if educators are not interested in students' development. Not all teachers are bad, but I think the vast majority are not dedicated to the profession. To compound matters, few people go into education as a first career choice.

"In the end, there's too much emphasis on academic excellence and not enough on personal development," the serving National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) commissioner says in a phone interview.

Little wonder then, if parents worry about whether teachers are capable of imparting the values they desire for their children, what more in a national school environment dominated by one race and religion.

"Parents are taking things into their own hands because they find that public schools just aren't cutting it or are promoting values that are not acceptable to their family," says David Tan, a home schooling parent who runs another support network at Home School Home Frontier.

Whose loss?

Many parents who home school their children prefer to lie low as they do not have exemptions from the Education Ministry to remove their children from primary school. Primary education in Malaysia is compulsory, and parents who do not comply are liable to a fine or imprisonment. The ministry grants exemptions, but usually only for children who are ill or with severe learning disabilities, or whose parents require frequent travel for work.

Parents seeking exemption for no other reason than to home school their kids say the process is bureaucratic and arbitrary.

In the meantime, however, the government has no intention of recognising home schooling, says education director-general Datuk Alimuddin Md Dom. "It's just a minority of people doing it. There are also other political aspects to consider like racial harmony. When children home-school, they miss the socialisation process of mixing with different races," he tells The Nut Graph.

Hafiza's eldest, Muhammad Kirua Hakimy, 6 (far left) at a dance class with other children
(pic courtesy of Hafiza Abd Rahman)

But Soon and Tan rubbish claims that home-schooled children are poorly socialised. Home school families often get together for educational activities and field trips where their children interact. Additionally, Tan questions whether racial harmony in public schools has been achieved. "Society has become more polarised after so many years of 'socialising' in regular schools," he observes.

Is official recognition by the government what home-schoolers want? After all, despite flouting the law, most parents carry on unhindered by the ministry.

The more pressing need, it appears, is for private tertiary education institutions to provide entry leeway to home-schooled teenagers. The usual route is to sit for the SPM as private candidates, since that is the only recognised qualification to enter local private colleges.

"In other countries, home-schooled students are given a higher entry bar for tertiary education, like writing a paper to qualify. It would be good if institutions of higher learning here could be [as] flexible. It would really help parents who can't afford to send their kids to study overseas," says Soon.

On the other hand, Tan feels that official recognition might bring government intervention and loss of autonomy. More importantly, he says, is for government to recognise that parents have the right over the care and education of their children in the manner they see fit.

And yet, with private or overseas institutions being the only route for home-schooled children to receive tertiary education, the ones on the losing end are Malaysian institutions and possibly the local workforce.

For the benefit of future generations, Soon wishes that the ministry could recognise home schools as a valid alternative system and engage them in exchanging ideas. After all, the government hopes to cultivate innovation and creativity in human capital, and could learn a thing or two from home-schoolers.

courtesy of Nut Graph

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