In The Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy’s signature phrase was ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ During COVID-19, Helen Lovejoy would be happy to know Australian state education departments were doing just that. Many hands were wrung about children’s mental and physical health and how their education was affected by the on again / off again remote schooling as government restrictions dragged on.
However, it was not all Helen Lovejoy. One group of children were completely forgotten about, at least at first. This group of children is the fastest growing education cohort in the world and should have been on the education departments’ radars.
They were the home schoolers.
Homeschoolers, sometimes called home educators, are families that choose not to enroll their children in institutional schooling and, instead, take on all the responsibilities of educating their children.
They tend to prefer the term home educator, because it takes away any comparison with school.
Homeschoolers in Australia
The remote schooling periods had two main effects on home educators in Australia. One was that it massively increased their numbers, although the numbers were growing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second effect was that it limited home educators’ access to services they rely on to educate their children and build community.
Homeschool numbers in Australia were rising before the pandemic. These numbers mirror the international experience, where home education has been consistently growing and is the fastest growing educational category by percentage growth.
Far from the stereotypes of hot-housed weirdos with no social skills, or fanatical religious families protecting their children from the pernicious influence of the secular world, home educators come from a variety of backgrounds.
Many choose home education in response to a child’s diagnosis such as Autism, Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder or a learning difficulty. For some, bullying is the catalyst to choose home education. For others, it is that a child just does not fit in at a school. For many home educating families, there are a combination of factors.
The community is diverse. There are as many ways to home educate as there are families that choose it. Typically, it’s understood to exist on a spectrum from highly structured approaches (school at home) to highly unstructured (eclectic or unschooling). Families also tend to move from highly structured to more unstructured the longer they home educate.
Despite the word ‘home’ in its name, home education happens in a multitude of places. Typically, home educators make use of parks, museums, art galleries, libraries, and any other public spaces. They organise together around group activities and form cooperatives or groups. They are often actively involved in the wider community, participating in activities such as musical theatre, local festivals, community sports and events, and volunteering opportunities. But their needs are rarely considered.
How the lockdowns affected homeschoolers
In Australia, the lockdowns were a radical rethinking of how schooling happens for those children who attend school and, in many cases, lockdown rules were bent so that young people still had access to school. Government and health officials reported that our young people would be safe because children didn’t contribute to the spread of COVID, and experienced milder symptoms than adults.
However, home education families did not get the same privileges. Their ability to meet, to access services and to participate in sports that school families took for granted was curtailed even while school children were given more and more freedom.
In Queensland during the initial 2020 lockdowns, school students were unable to go to school for two months. They were then allowed to return amid more stringent hygiene requirements, but not required to socially distance.
Conversely, home educated young people were locked down before schools closed, and were restricted in their educational activities for 100 days longer than school students. They were also required to socially distance in situations where school students were not.
A great example of the disparity was swimming at a public pool. Schools were able to continue swimming lessons and carnivals at public pools, but home educated young people couldn’t have their lessons or carnivals. All places home educating families meet were under restrictions that made it impossible for them to enjoy their regular educational opportunities.
In New South Wales (NSW), the situation was similar, but went on far longer. Although school students were locked down for 63 days, similar to Queensland, the restrictions that applied to home educated young people lasted 214 days. They were not able to organise their group educational activities until the 23rd of October. They lost most of the school year.
A peak body for home educators, the Home Education Association, appealed to these governments to consider the needs of this growing community, but neither the Queensland nor NSW government felt it necessary.
The lack of consultation needs to be fixed going forward
While the government consulted with educational authorities such as state schools’ associations, independent schools’ groups, and the Catholic sector; no home education group was consulted.
It seems only fair home educating families could have been given the same rules that applied to teachers and students in schools. If children weren’t a big risk of COVID, then their place of education wouldn’t matter.
The governments’ lack of inclusion practices is likely to have harmed the home educating. Anecdotally, they already face more challenges in educating their children, and home education is rarely a family’s first choice. It seems the government don’t think much about the home educating, maybe because they don’t really understand why and how families do it.
It’s time governments and education departments thought about all the children in their care. It’s more challenging to think about the needs of the dispersed and disparate home educators but it’s essential their needs are considered going forward. By remembering them, and thinking of how a non-school student would be affected, we can fix the issues and encourage more engagement with governments.