Meet the families who sidestep the traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom, whether it by home-schooling or through distance-learning. Katie Roberts talks to parents about how and why they’ve chosen to educate their children outside mainstream local and international schools in Singapore.
A dozen parents sit chatting in the shade on a weekday afternoon at Gardens by the Bay. Children aged from four to 13 years are racing about under the sprinklers and getting wet, riding scooters, or quietly playing Uno. The adult conversation centres around their children’s learning, what’s happened that day, and where they’re planning to go for the holidays. It’s a typical Singapore scene, and yet it’s not.
These parents are home-schooling their children, who are free from the 8am to 3pm confines of the traditional schoolyard. This particular social get-together, organised by American expat Nikole Horkin under the auspices of the group she founded, Singapore Homeschooling Expats, is one of a number that support parents in their roles as teachers and educators, and provide an outlet for children to socialise and make friendships with kids on the same journey.
Hear from Nikole
Nikole says that the parents, representing a broad range of nationalities and backgrounds, have chosen this form of education for many different reasons. “We’ve lived in Singapore for eight years now, and have home-schooled our 11-year-old son for the past two years,” she says. As their son was approaching upper elementary level, Nikole and her husband felt home-schooling could improve the quality of his education and the family’s quality of life, so they switched to an online curriculum. The curriculum dictates that children need to complete 180 school days a year.
“There are many reasons why people choose to home-school, from the high cost of schooling (especially for bigger families) or religious reasons, to kids being unhappy in mainstream schools, wanting more flexibility and family time, or more time to spend with the child’s father when he isn’t working,” Nikole says.
Parents connect with each other via social media for support and socialisation. Even if they use the same online learning curriculum, they can’t access the details of others in the same country, so these meet-ups are vital. “Singapore Homeschooling Expats is a small but active group that meets multiple times a week – we learn from each other, and the kids and parents get to socialise. In addition to this group, my son participates in extracurricular activities like arts and sports, and, of course, makes friends with children in the neighbourhood,” she says.
What to expect
Nikole lists the advantages of home-schooling: you can start school at any time of day, do schoolwork in your PJs, enjoy unlimited family time and have the freedom to travel at any time of year. However, she adds, the parent’s free time becomes more limited as the children are with you 24/7, and this may not be suitable for many families. She is quick to mention other pitfalls: being subjected to the opinions of naysayers, pressure from others (including family members), and fighting the stigma that home-schooled kids won’t fit in. “These are different stressors to those that are present in the normal school system,” she says.
Neither Nikole nor many of the parents I asked could give me an estimate of the number of expats home-schooling their children in Singapore, because their choice of schooling is entirely their own. The Ministry of Education, on the other hand, mandates compulsory schooling for all Singapore citizens; students who choose this alternative path must apply for exemption.
Would she recommend home-schooling?
“When we first started, I would defend my choice by stating that of course it’s not for everyone; but now I see that it is for everyone. Everyone can do it, with the right support. I always tell my son that the decision is up to him, though he has become so accustomed to his independence now that I don’t think he could be tied down.”
Australian Philipa Gleeson-Payne has four children, and the family is enjoying its second stint in Singapore after spending some time in the US. Her kids are all home-schooled, and she relies on group meet-ups for interaction, both for herself and for her children. “I’m passionate about providing quality learning experiences, whether they are within a traditional school environment, or through other means.”
Hear from Philipa
Philipa says there is no typical school day, and every family can relish the flexibility to do as they please. While some kids only need to complete two hours of work, which some do at night, many of the older kids will have up to six hours of work. These include Philipa’s 16-year-old daughter, who does her schoolwork during the day and then heads to dance class. “The amount of flexibility depends on if you’re following a curriculum,” says Philipa. “A curriculum is obviously more structured because the learning is online. Outside of that, kids devote their time to pursuing their own interests and passions – dance, filmmaking, science and so on. Most of our friends don’t home-school, but they also don’t see us as any different from the rest of the crowd.”
#2 Distance Learning
While it sits under the umbrella of home-schooling, distance education is an altogether different experience for children. They are part of a school community, albeit in different geographical locations. Edith Kraaijeveld’s two boys, Luc (12) and Yannick (13), are in their fourth year of distance education and attend the Brisbane School of Distance Education (BSDE). Although they live in Singapore, the family considers the Australian state of Queensland home, which makes them eligible to enrol in the distance education programme.
Hear from Edith
“Our boys started at local schools in Singapore, but it became quite demanding from Primary 4 – the big classes, and the focus on tests and results,” says Edith. “Even though the teachers were lovely and supportive, the boys were finding it increasingly difficult to perform well. So, we started looking for alternatives and found BSDE. It provides us with a school community, collaboration opportunities, close interaction with teachers and classmates, and a fabulous way of making learning fun. Parents or tutors provide support and supervision in their capacity as home-tutors.”
At the same time, Edith acknowledges that distance learning isn’t for everybody. “It really depends on the family circumstances, because parents need to be involved, support the curriculum, ensure they stay on track and provide the right guidance and support.”
How does it work?
Her boys receive most of their curriculum online. They also participate in elective lessons, including robotics and environmental classes. And the school even organises school camps, which is a great opportunity for the children to meet the teachers and the other students in person.
“We can continue with BSDE throughout secondary school, and for now they are happy attending a distance education school and aren’t keen to go back to a bricks-and-mortar school. Another advantage for the family is that this schooling option travels with us – the boys can log in to their classes from anywhere in the world,” she says.
And what about the social aspect?
Edith says Luc and Yannick have a great group of friends, play tennis three times a week and are part of a home-school group that gets together for activities; plus, with everything Singapore has to offer, it’s very easy to organise a diverse range of activities.
“I’ve noticed they make friends with kids of all ages and talk to adults easily. Because there is possibly less exposure to peer pressure, it seems a little easier for them to form their own opinions, as they’re less concerned about expressing or liking things that could be unpopular with their peers,” she adds.
“This type of schooling is a good fit with our world. With the guidance from their teachers and our support, they’re taking responsibility for their learning and they understand that learning is forever – not just at school but everywhere in the world around them. As parents, it’s a journey that is a little different, and it’s not the easiest way, but we enjoy the challenge and at the moment it seems to be working out fine,” she says.
#3 The Open Primary
Sandra Welsh started The Open Primary with Andrew Kagoro in January. It’s an alternative educational path to help foreign students residing in Singapore who missed out on a spot in the local school P1 registration exercise, or who didn’t make the mark for placement through the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS).
“We hear the frustration of many expatriates who love living in Singapore but might have to leave because the international school fees are out of reach, or due to the unpredictability of securing a place in the local school system. The Open Primary is not run as a traditional school, but is another viable option for foreign students residing in Singapore,” she says.
What it offers
Indeed, it may also suit parents who don’t think they’re cut out to be full-time teachers for their children, or who are working. In a nutshell, The Open Primary provides instruction in Primary 1 to Primary 6, based on the Singapore MOE primary school curriculum. A qualified and local school-experienced teacher educates children over a 36-week academic year in a secure, private classroom with a maximum of nine students.
Sandra, who is Malaysian born but a long-term resident of Singapore, and her husband, who is from the UK, wish to continue living in Singapore after 11 happy years here, and they have plans for their six-year-old twins to commence Primary 1 through The Open Primary from the beginning of next year. “The response from parents in a similar situation has been really encouraging – they feel the same way, that The Open Primary is a good option for foreign students to consider.”
People who follow the “unschooling” method subscribe to the philosophy of a learner-directed education. It’s essentially child-centred learning and follows the child’s own interests developed by their interaction with the environment around them. The concept was formally named in the 1970s, and while it has both critics and supporters, it’s true that children in many countries are educated in this way. Kids may participate in different activities and even organised courses, but the main thread is that all exploration and learning is child-initiated.
In the end, parents make important decisions regarding their child’s education, based on their lifestyle, family circumstances and, most importantly, the needs of their child. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s certainly not an easy decision; but it’s at least good to know that, along with international and local schools, there are plenty of schooling options in Singapore.
Head along to our kids section for more tips on kids’ education and more.