The fascinating reasons why some students will never go back to school

While homeschool, distance education and pandemic school are terms that were used interchangeably during the pandemic, when schools closed, went online, reopened, perhaps closed again or went back online, parents weren’t homeschooling or doing distance then. However, in the wake of this experience, more parents have opted for home and distance education. These terms have been used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. 

Homeschool/home education

Homeschooling or home education, the preferred, legal term, is a legal educational option enshrined in every state or territory Education Act. While the precise definition differs, there are some key elements to home education that separate it from distance education and pandemic schooling.

First, home education is always the responsibility of the parent (or in some states a registered teacher can be designated). They accept full responsibility for the planning, implementation, management and monitoring of the child’s learning in a suitable, home-based environment.

Second, parents must be responsible for providing a high quality education for their children. The state or territory will check the education is high-quality through reviewing the parent’s learning plan.

Third, the parent is the primary person who is responsible for learning, usually in consultation with the child.

Fourth, the parent must show that the child is learning, just as a regular school reports to parents. Some states, such as Queensland, require all parents to prepare a report. Some states, such as Victoria, audit families. Some states, such as NSW, send department representatives to check on the child and their learning.

Fifth, home education is time limited to the ‘compulsory school age’. In Queensland and South Australia for example, compulsory school age is between six and 16 years (on completion of year 10). In other states, it is 17 (such as New South Wales and Victoria). After this age, a parent can no longer enrol in home education.

There are some providers that offer curriculum and planning services to home educators. These can be Christian or secular. Many of these providers offer registration and reporting assistance with staff available to answer parents’ questions. Some services offer resources that parents put together as they see fit.

These groups straddle the divide between homeschooling and distance education but always place the onus on parents to provide the education. In addition, at no point is the child enrolled in a school. These providers simply support parents in educating the child. The key difference between home and distance education is the parents’ role.

Distance education

Distance education is a different but also legal educational option enshrined in every state or territory Education Act. However, access differs across states and territories.

Unlike home education, in distance education, the parent enrols their child in a school of distance education where teachers plan, implement and report on the child’s progress. The parent is responsible for overseeing that education or they can outsource that responsibility to a home tutor.

Not every state or territory allows the same access to distance education. In some states, like Queensland, if you’re prepared to facilitate your child’s learning and pay the fees, your child can be enrolled in public distance education regardless of geographic location.

Other states or territories do not offer access to public distance education without a strong, usually geographic, caring or health, reason. In New South Wales for example, public distance education may also be offered as a means of transitioning back to face to face school.

While some state distance education options charge fees, these can be waived for a number of reasons including if the student lives rural or remote, if the student has caring responsibilities, if the student is excluded from state schools, if the student is suffering from a medical condition or if the student is in jail.

In the ACT, enrolment in distance education is through a local state school, but the student is not expected to attend that school and does their education through distance at home instead.

There are also private distance education providers. Many of these are based in a strong Christian foundation and offer a Christian lens on their students’ learning. There are some private, non-religious options for families who prefer a secular education.

But none of this is what happened when schools were forced into preparing for pandemic learning

Pandemic school

Pandemic school was neither home nor distance education. While parents were expected to oversee the education of their children, it was not the same.

When schools closed during the pandemic, the child was still enrolled in their school. Their classroom teachers were still responsible for their education, the parents were facilitating the on- and off-line components of their education.

Parents were not, or should not have been, expected to be heavily engaged in their learning. Parents were facilitators not teachers.

What does this mean going forward?

There has been an increase in the enrolments in home and distance education after the pandemic. While, for some families, the experience was nightmare fuel they never, ever, ever want to repeat, for others, it was really positive.

The ACT recently held an inquiry into the experiences of students and parents who were schooling during the pandemic. That inquiry found many parents and students wanted more flexibility in school delivery after the period of pandemic schooling.

For a growing group of parents, this time was found to be beneficial for their children.

There is also a Catch-22 for schools which has led to an increase in enrolments in home and distance education.

Some families fear the reopening of face-to-face schools may mean their children will get sick with COVID at school.

Other families fear their children will be forced to be vaccinated.

Another group of parents are upset about school vaccination policies that mandate vaccinations for entering school sites, effectively locking them out of their children’s schools.

It may be that, in the fall out from the pandemic, the difference between home and distance education is less academic and more real for many families.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.

Why homeschool? It gets complicated now

A new way to think about homeschoolers: accidentals and deliberates

When you think about a homeschooler, what pops into your head? 

Is it a fundamentalist Christian, reflexively avoiding the secular world that is perceived as dangerous? 

Perhaps it’s a hot-housed, overachieving wunderkind whose music or sport makes attendance at school impossible? 

Is it a child whose school experience was awful and now they’re refusing to go back?

The truth about who homeschools in Australia, and why, is more complex than any of these stereotypes. However, research in Australia and overseas (English, 2021; Ray, 2015; Puga, 2019; 2021; Fields-Smith, 2020) suggests the last one, where a child has negative school experiences, or finds school hostile, is closest to the reason the majority of Australia’s homeschoolers choose to do so. 

How many home educators are there in Australia?

The population of homeschoolers has grown exponentially in each state and territory over the past five years. It’s increasingly likely you’ll see them more often in the community. However, the legal term is home educator (see the WA policy documents as an example), because it takes the school out of the equation.

The legally registered home educating population in Australia is around 26,000 students (English & Gribble, 2021). 

However, accurately measuring that population is difficult and the figure is likely to be an undercount.

Each state and territory has different policies to manage home educators and this leads to different counts.

Policy differences also mean that some states have higher levels of ‘illegal’ families who choose not to register.

One report (Townsend, 2012), from 2012, suggested the undercount of home educators in Queensland was as many as 12,000.

Others (Krogh & Giuliano, 2021) suggest the ways the different states manage their registration process affects the numbers of families willing to engage with their legal obligations.

While states and territories have different rules, they all share one thing in common, home educators must register with their authority that manages this population. 

In some states, a person may ask to come to your house and see your setup (NSW), in others, you have to make a statement about what you expect to do (Victoria), in still others, you have to send in a report and reapply every 10 months (Queensland). 

The highest number of home educators, as a percentage of population, is in New South Wales and Victoria, both have around six in every thousand students who are home educating (English & Gribble, 2021).

The biggest growth in the last five years has been in Queensland, where the population grew by around 26 per cent in 2020, possibly in response to the pandemic (English & Gribble, 2021).

But, as with all states and territories, Queensland has seen a strong growth in home educators over the last five years, so while 2020 may have forced some families’ hands, it is in line with expectations based on yearly growth (English & Gribble, 2021).

Accidental home educators

Research into why people choose to home educate is amongst the most robust in the field. 

In Australia, there is a strong correlation between negative school experiences and the decision to home educate (English, 2013; 2021).

In my research, I figure as many as 80 per cent of the families who home educate do so because one, or more, of their children has had a negative experience at school (English, 2021).

I term these families ‘accidental home educators’ (English, 2021) because they did not set out to home educate and do not have any of that stereotypical ideological opposition to school.

There are a number of reasons for their choice. A good deal of work in the field suggests families may be home educating because a child has a diagnosis of ASD (Hurlbutt, 2011) or ADHD (Duvall, Delquardi & Ward, 2004) or have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression (Gribble & English, 2016). In most cases, these studies found children were previously enrolled at school, but left due to the problems in school. 

Neuman, 2019 provides an excellent discussion of the differences between dissatisfied parents who home educate and those who stick it out at school.

Research (Neuman & Guterman, 2017) suggests these families feel more in control and can manage their lifestyles more effectively when they choose to home educate.

The other group of home educators, those who were always going to choose to home educate and who hold an ideological aversion to schools, I term the deliberates (English, 2021).

These families are generally religious, or anti-authority. It is likely they have lower rates of vaccination than the other families, so schools’ ‘no jab no play’ policies may affect their ability to send their child to early childhood which may lead them to eschew institutionalised education altogether.

Earlier conceptualisations of home education choice (Van Galen, 1991) split families into two groups. These two groups were ideologues and pedagogues, which meant either ideology or problems with schools’ approaches to teaching and learning led to the decision to home educate.

The first group was termed ideologues because they were described by Van Galen (1991) as ideological in their opposition to school.

The second group was termed pedagogues. 

Van Galen (1991) defined these families as not caring too much about what the school believed, it was the teaching, the environment, the classrooms and the rules that were the problem. 

This group’s “criticisms of schools are not so much that the schools teach heresy, but that schools teach whatever they teach ineptly” (Van Galen, 1991, p. 71).

The two categories of ideologue and pedagogue do not seem to hold in Australia because most of the home educating population have spent some time enrolled in a school.

In any event, as Rothemal, 2003 argued, these two categories are reductive and fail to account for the reasons the home educating population is growing.

As numbers of home educators grows, understanding how the choice interacts with other policies, particularly those that favour choice and parental control over education, is important. 

There are parallels in international studies with neoliberal choice policies (see Oliveria & Barbosa, 2017) and policies favouring the private supply of education services (see Aruini & Davis, 2005) may also be implicated in the choice to home educate.

In all, whatever educators think about home education, it is likely to remain a growing trend. In particular, where schools are forced to shutter due to major catastrophes such as pandemics (Duval, 2021) and even climate change induced calamities, it may be an increasing minority of the population who home educate. 

If Queensland has seen a 26 per cent increase in the last year and the population around the country grows, it’s likely to be an increasingly strong political force in Australia, one which governments ignore at their peril.

Rebecca English is a senior lecturer in the School of Teacher Education & Leadership in the Faculty of CI, Education & Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. She teaches into the BCT Curriculum area as well as the sociocultural studies units and was a teacher in both the Catholic Education and Education Queensland sectors for seven years.