IF you ask Jeremy Lee* how much he likes school, chances are you'll get a rather frank reply.
“I don't like school. I get very restless, and then the teacher will make me stand in the corner and pull my ears,” he says.
Until three years ago, Jeremy, 11, was in a public school. And he had trouble fitting in.
“We put him in a public school for Year One and Two. From the start, it was clear he had difficulty adapting. We kept getting complaints from teachers that he could not concentrate, he couldn't stay in his seat long, he asked too many questions and was too opinionated.
“Soon, he was labelled as a difficult student and constantly punished,” his mother Sharon Lee*, 38, explains.
Jeremy adds that he had very few friends in school. “If you want to be friends with the good students, you have to be very, very good yourself. The other students are bullies. You have to pay them RM20 to be their friend,” he says.
Sharon says Jeremy had always been a bubbly and active child, but his personality began to change and his grades suffered. “He was so depressed and miserable, it was frightening. Going to school was like torture for him. He had tonnes of homework, but it was clear he wasn't learning anything. It was merely a process of doing lots of homework, and sitting for test after test.”
Jeremy's father Simon Lee* adds: “Initially, we thought maybe it's because we had been too easy on him, and so if we pushed him a little more, he would be able to do better. So we pushed him and we caned him ... but nothing worked.
“One day in the middle of all the caning, he just cried back You can cane me until I die, I still won't learn this!' That was when we knew it just wasn't working.”
Simon and Sharon began to explore other options, including homeschooling
“We read up, attended workshops ... we even visited families who practised homeschooling. After about a year of researching and weighing this option, we decided to give it a try,” Sharon says.
“I think homeschooling has helped him a lot. He likes to find things out on his own, rather than being force-fed information. He wasn't getting that opportunity in school. Back then, the system was forcing him with information, and expecting him to regurgitate it. He couldn't learn that way.
“Now he explores and learns at his own pace, and he's definitely doing much better. In fact, he's giving me so much more than what the programme books are covering. He reads up extra material on topics he's interested in and really enjoys it,” she explains.
Sharon applies a mix-and-match syllabus and keeps academic lessons to a maximum of three hours per day. The rest of the time, her children learn through activities or pleasure reading.
“I'm using a little bit of the AOP (Alpha Omega Publications a Christian-based syllabus from the United States) and Singapore mathematics. That's one advantage of homeschooling, I can pick and choose what curriculum I want to use.”
The Lees decided to homeschool Matthew for a very different reason.
“Matthew would have fitted perfectly into the public school system. He's intelligent and very obedient ... the perfect law-abiding citizen. If the teacher says No drinking water in class,' he won't drink water the whole day. If the teacher says No going to the toilet,' he will actually hold his bladder the whole time he's in school,” Simon says.
“We believe he would have been an above-average student in a public school, but we didn't want him to be a fearful child who didn't know how to express himself. So after a year in public school, we decided to take him out too.”
The Lees are not alone in homeschooling their children. They say many other families are also turning to homeschooling as an alternative education system.
There are essentially three variations of homeschooling:
> parents tutoring their children at home (like the Lees);
> a few families banding to teach their children together in a casual setting;
> centres which apply homeschooling methods and syllabus.
Over the last four months, Jamie Ong*, 45, has been sending her daughter Jolyn Ong*, 12, to a homeschooling centre near their home. Jolyn had spent the last five years in a public school.
“My husband and I want our children to experience the public school system, where they get to make friends from the different layers of society. We want them to experience that first,” she says.
“Our plan is for them to go to a regular school for five years, but we pull them out in Year Six. We don't really see the need for them to sit for the UPSR, where they're just drilled for the exam the whole year.”
Jolyn has two younger siblings in public schools. Jamie plans to take them out, too, after Year 5.
“We want our children to have a better quality education. We've seen the public school syllabus and we're not comfortable with it. The education blueprint ... on paper it looks wonderful, but the reality is a different story altogether,” Jamie says.
“We also considered private schools, but the fees are too expensive. Schools we inquired at were charging around RM10,000 a year, or more. Currently, we're paying RM450 a month for Jolyn's school fees. It's a lot more affordable.”
Indeed, quality and cost seem to be two major factors why homeschooling centres are mushrooming nationwide.
Emily Wong*, a principal at one such centre in the Klang Valley, says there are over 60 students in her centre (between the ages of seven and 18), and she knows of at least 80 other similar centres in Malaysia.
“Students can come in at any time of the year; there is no intake period. They are given an entrance-assessment to see what grade they should start at, and then they learn at their own pace,” she says.
“Many people think homeschooling centres are only for children with problems, but it's not true. We have very bright students, and we have slow students too they can learn at their own pace.”
The centre applies the Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) curriculum, where students sit for the O-Levels when they are ready. This allows them to later pursue the A-Levels, if they choose to do so.
Junior students at the centre learn the basic subjects of English, Mathematics, Bahasa Malaysia, Social Studies (basic introduction to history and geography), and Science.
In Year Six, the sciences are split into Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and in Year Nine, students have the option of taking up additional subjects such as Business Studies, Accounts and Additional Mathematics. Classes are from 8.30am to 1.45pm, Monday to Friday.
Students have optional additional activities such as Mandarin classes, and the Emerging Leaders programme. They can also take up sports, such as badminton and basketball.
“The students learn through modules books and online. If they have problems understanding their lessons, we have supervisors who will assist them,” Wong says.
“Senior students even have live-conference classes. They can interact with the teacher and ask questions. These teachers are experienced ... some are even lecturers in the subjects they are teaching.”
She adds that students are required to set out daily goals what they set out to do for the day. When class ends, they recap to see if they've achieved those goals.
“When a student has completed a module, he sits for a test to see if he has really understood what he has learned. We hold very high standards for our students. Our passing mark is 80,” she says.
While homeschooling seems to have gained popularity in Malaysia in the last 10 to 20 years, it is not a new concept, says Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Council president Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng.
“If you go back to history, you will see that homeschooling has been long practised, where affluent families hired governesses to tutor their children at home. That is homeschooling. Later on, it was more popular for the rich to send their children to private boarding schools, so even Prince Charles (Prince of Wales) went to school.
“In the 1970s, homeschooling regained popularity, particularly in the United States, which is why many homeschooling syllabuses come from the US,” says Dr Chiam, formerly a Professor of Social Psychology at Universiti Malaya, and an authority in child development and early childhood education.
According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, there were about 1.5 million homeschoolers in 2007. Today, the US National Home Education Research Institute estimates that there are about two million homeschoolers in the country.
Across the Atlantic, the Home Education UK website (www.home-education.org.uk) estimates that “there are around 60,000 (approximately 0.6%) UK children of compulsory educational age who are currently being home-educated”.
In Malaysia, data is harder to come by, but industry insiders estimate that there are 3,000 to 5,000 Malaysian homeschoolers, the majority of whom keep a low profile as a primary school enrolment is compulsory by law in the country.
Under Section 29A of the Education Act 1996, parents who fail to enrol their children in school can be fined up to RM5,000, jailed up to six months, or both.
However, parents such as Simon believe that they are not breaking the law.
“I believe that this law was enacted to prevent child labour, to make sure children get an education. I may not be sending my children to school, but I'm giving them quality education,” he says.
Homeschooling, however, is not totally free from criticism. A main concern is whether homeschooled children have adequate social interaction with their peers.
“Socially, they may be impacted, but parents can make up for it by ensuring the children have opportunities to interact with other children their age (for example, through sports activities). Parents need to expose their children to other environments,” Dr Chiam says.
The Lees have done just that Jeremy and Matthew have competitive swimming lessons three times a week.
“They have friends from their swimming classes, and they are also very active in church. Jeremy and Matthew both play the drums for the children's service. Jeremy plays the guitar too,” Sharon says.
“We also belong to a support group of homeschooling families, and the children get to play with the other homeschoolers.”
Is homeschooling for everyone?
“It's a very personal decision, and there are many factors to consider. For Jeremy, school couldn't bring out the best in him, so we turned to homeschooling.
“People often ask us What's the end goal?', but we don't have fixed answers. We're just trying to do the best by our children. What we have in mind is for them to find out what they really enjoy doing. When they enjoy what they do, we believe they will excel,” Simon concludes.
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals.
By LISA GOH email@example.com