Which is the best school for my child? This is a question that is constantly on local parents’ minds.
Around this time of the year, many parents would’ve decided on the ideal primary school for their child. For a small group of parents, however, education is something too important to place in someone else’s hands. These are the homeschooling parents, who’ve taken it upon themselves to be solely responsible for the learning journeys of their children.
According to Ministry of Education (MOE) figures, about 500 students have been homeschooled from 2003 to 2014. Dawn Fung, local homeschooling mother and founder of the Homeschool Singapore community, estimates that about 40 to 50 homeschooled children take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) each year. However, she adds that homeschoolers also include expatriates that do not require an exemption from Singapore’s compulsory education system.
The decision to homeschool is not an easy one.
“We ping-ponged, we chatted about it, we shared articles about education, and finally we thought we’d give it a go. It probably took over a year of thinking through and exploring the option before we went ahead with it,” says parent influencer and homeschooling mother Justina Tey, who has primary school-aged children. “I think many of us don’t ever feel up to it or ready, and it’s a long-drawn process of figuring out what works for the family and what doesn’t.” (Read her story here.)
“Now that my kids are grown and I am aware of how parents can be stretched when they homeschool, I know they need help,” says homeschooling mother Apple Teoh, whose children are aged 14, 16, and 19. “A few veteran homeschool moms and I have started a consultancy to help parents who wish to embark on this journey, hoping to make it less bumpy for them.”
KSP spoke to Apple about her homeschooling experience, and how it has benefited her own children, as well as others within her homeschooling network. She also tells us why, if she could do it over again, she would still choose the homeschooling route.
Why do local parents homeschool?
Apple Teoh: More often than not, there is a huge push factor that drives local parents to homeschool. For example, there are many Christian homeschooling families in Singapore, because the parents want to share their values with their children. I also know of Muslims and families of other faiths who are homeschooling.
It’s also common for local parents to explore homeschooling when they find that their children are not able to adapt to mainstream schools.
Some of these children have learning challenges, and they are not able to get enough support in schools. There are also children who have anxiety issues, and they just have a meltdown whenever they go to school. These kids may not fit in any of the “special education needs” categories, but nonetheless, school is stressful for them.
I would say that some schools are more supportive than others. But in a large classroom, it’s hard to cater to a child with special needs. Although there are generally one or two Allied Educators in each school now, the form teacher is the person who is in charge of the class. Form teachers are generally not trained in this area — they may have completed a special education needs module during their teacher training, but it’s not enough for them to effectively help their students with learning challenges.
Are homeschooled children too sheltered?
AT: When we talk about homeschooling, it simply means that the parents are responsible for planning their children’s education. It doesn’t mean that homeschooled children are kept at home all day and every day. In fact, we go out a lot, and we meet people of different ages.
Homeschooling provides a safe environment for children to grow up in. By “safe environment,” I don’t mean a sheltered environment. Our homeschooling network is one where everyone is accepted regardless of their differences. We look out for one another’s kids, and we don’t discriminate because of a child’s learning challenges or family situation.
For special education needs, some mums will organise “co-ops,” which are groups that meet and work together towards common schooling goals. These will involve neurotypical kids — kids without learning issues — and kids with challenges, and everybody plays together.
When parents are able to set that expectation for their children — that you can be friends with anyone — children will play together. They may say to their parents, “That kid is strange,” or “He doesn’t talk to me.” But we’ll say to them, “Give him a little more time, or space.”
I believe this environment breeds more understanding about individuals who might be different, as opposed to a school. Schools are also social environments, but there is less adult supervision and guidance.
How do you create a “school environment” at home?
AT: To the uninitiated, homeschooling might seem like a scary prospect, because when parents send their kids to school, all the curriculum planning is done by the school.
As a homeschooling parent, what I’ve learned is that you cannot replicate the school environment at home.
When I started out, I tried to follow a timetable religiously at home, but it didn’t work out. I realised that I wanted to give my kids time to play, and to interact with one another. Sometimes they would start on a piece of work and require more time, and I didn’t want to say “This period is over, you have to stop.”
It’s not helpful to clock watch all the time, because a child may take a longer time to finish a project, and we should allow the child the satisfaction of seeing it to completion. Sometimes, while doing the project, an interesting discussion may surface, so time should be given for that too. It’s useful to give some leeway for exploration with the child, as you may encounter teaching moments that may not come up again.
In our family, we fix certain routines. We have our meals together as far as possible. My kids also have tutors and online classes, and we do stick to the scheduled classes.
At the same time, homeschooling gives us the flexibility to prioritise family time. For instance, if my husband happens to be home, we can take a break together. Or if Grandma is ill, I’ll say to my children, “Let’s bring her lunch and spend time with her.” I think these are opportunities to teach values as well.
How do you instil good work habits?
AT: I buy textbooks that are made for self-learning. In schools, the textbooks do not always contain enough substance for the students to dig deeper. A lot of what kids are tested on are taken from the thick stacks of notes that teachers give. And kids become dependent on the teachers to feed them information — they expect to be taught, and that becomes their mindset.
It was a struggle for me to find books where my children could get all the information they needed. I now buy books from foreign publishers such as Saxon Math and Apologia Science — they provide an in-depth perspective of each topic, which facilitates learning. Typically, these books will also have chapter pre-tests and tests for students to check their understanding.
To decide how much work your children should cover each day, look at how many chapters there are in each of their textbooks, versus the number of weeks in a school year (after taking off about two to three months for breaks). Does it work if your children can cover a certain number of pages in a day? Looking at your scheduled activities for each week, perhaps your children might only have three or four days per week dedicated to seat work — has that been factored in? Based on these considerations, you or your children can draw up a schedule to follow. If they should fall behind on their work, check with them why.
For my son, now 19 and serving his National Service, I had advised him not to do last-minute work. I would suggest that he try to finish his work two days ahead of a deadline, bearing in mind our designated family days as well.
My daughter, 16, takes online classes, and her work schedule is given to her at the start of the year. We would look at the different assignments and their requirements, and determine which ones could be done ahead of the given deadlines. This gives her more free time and breathing space.
To minimise distractions, I ask my children to keep their phones at our charging stations. They generally check their phones twice a day, unless they need the phones for assignments or projects. If necessary, the phones can be put on airplane mode as well. Our computers are in the living area, so I can see what’s on their screens.
As for staying on task, every kid is different. Some kids need a snack or a break to recharge, while others don’t.
I didn’t spot check my older children’s work once they reached the upper secondary levels, but I still monitor the work of my 14-year-old daughter, who has special education needs. The target I’ve set for her, which is similar to what I’ve done with her older siblings, is: not more than three mistakes per pre-test.
If there are mistakes, we’ll go over them and I’ll ask, “Was it a careless mistake, or is this something you don’t know? Was there something you missed in your notes? Would you like to read the section again before you do the actual test?”
Even though these are book tests, it makes my daughter happy when she gets a higher grade.
Is it stressful keeping up with the national exams?
AT: When it comes to the national exams, some parents take it in their stride, while others may feel stressed. Take the required Primary 4 exams for homeschoolers: if a child doesn’t do well, it’s time to look at how you can help him or her in Primary 5. It’s not a be-all-and-end-all exam.
The same can be said of the PSLE, where it’s just another exam.
It’s the perspective that you take, and in our homeschooling communities, we try to encourage parents to adopt the healthier perspective, where exams are not everything. It might be harder to cope with these fears in school, because you and your child could be exposed to exam talk in the school community every day.
For my family, we encouraged my neurotypical kids by telling them that they could clear the benchmark set by the MOE for homeschoolers. We did not expect high scores from them. But we expected them to put in their best effort to learn, understand, and take responsibility for their work.
We also felt it was important for our children to have the confidence to handle the papers when they stepped into the exam room. The main stresses for them were related to planning their time during the exam — so that they could complete all the questions within the given time — and formulating their answers in the required format. While chunks of time were taken to work on practice papers, we also balanced it with activities that provided for creativity and respite.
What about extracurricular opportunities?
AT: I think the biggest advantage of homeschooling is that our children are not exposed to the daily stress of preparing for exams, and they are able to explore more interests and growth opportunities.
My 16-year-old daughter was involved with the local homeschooling convention this year, which is a big event for our community. She was in charge of the children’s drop-off zone, and she worked with other mothers to decide how to manage these kids. She had to consider the venue capacity, the demand for childcare services over the three days of the convention, how much to charge for the drop-off service, and much more.
The person-in-charge would set some parameters, and within these parameters, my daughter was given the freedom to design activities for children of different ages, to oversee the lunch arrangements, and to find out how to recruit volunteers. Each of these responsibilities presented their own challenges. For instance, she had to consider if she should pay her volunteers, and what would be a reasonable rate.
There was a WhatsApp chat group for this project, and I was part of the group, but as an observer. If I sensed a situation arising, I would alert my daughter, but most times, I would ask her questions and leave her to come up with the solutions. After the convention, there was also a debriefing meeting to discuss how things could be done better next year.
In another year, my son took part in the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition, together with his homeschooling team. They were up against school teams, and when we saw the other planes, we thought, “These planes look so sophisticated! Did the kids actually come up with the planes themselves?”
Our team’s plane was amateur looking, and it didn’t fly as far as the other planes. We immediately thought there was no hope of our team winning the competition. But, our team emerged champion! We were very surprised, and found out later that the judges were impressed with our team’s presentation skills. Some of the other teams couldn’t field questions — students would even argue among themselves, which cost them points.
In schools, everyone has targets. For example, when children join competitions, there may be pressure to win, and that’s when adults may interfere, because the stakes are high.
In our homeschooling environments, our children work with people that they know, and it’s OK to fail. Things don’t have to be perfect, and it’s more important that our children get to learn.