“I need you to change my name and some identifying details, because I’m on the other side of the fucking world and I’m still scared.”
“Whatever you need, sure.”
“You’re going to change my name right?”
“And can you send me a link to the story when it’s done?”
“Yes, and you can see it before it is published.”
Jennifer* is a mother of two, in her early thirties, with a bachelor’s degree. She lives a 13-hour flight away from her parents, and has not communicated with them properly in years. But she is still utterly, acutely terrified of them. Staunch fundamentalist Christians, they homeschooled her in rural New South Wales for most of her school-aged years. She suffered extraordinarily at their hands.
“My dad didn’t want me going to school and he said it was because he was afraid that I would tell teachers ‘lies’ about what was happening at home and that they’d see the bruises on me and report him,” she says. We are talking via Facebook chat – any other medium would be too intimate.
“He beat us a lot. He called it spanking but he used electrical cords, canes. I remember a cane and a wooden slat being broken on me. We would bleed. When I was ten, he did something to me that I consider rape.”
The abuse Jennifer suffered also went beyond the physical. Her education was extremely strictly-controlled and her access to the outside, secular world was limited. Science was limited to Creationism. The “ungodly” texts of Harry Potter and Sesame Street were banned.
Despite regaining control over her life by moving overseas, creating a family of her own, and learning via TAFE, university and now online courses, Jennifer says she still harbours anger and sadness over her homeschooling experience.
“I am still resentful. I feel like by homeschooling me they purposely stole my right to an education from me,” she tells us. “My father says that because he said sorry I should forgive him and that forgiveness means never talking about it to anyone.” There is a pause in our chat. The typing ellipse appears on the screen.
“Especially not journalists. You are going to change my name, aren’t you?”
It seems that Jennifer’s sad story of homeschooling abuse is not an outlier. In May of this year, the New South Wales Government established a Legislative Inquiry into homeschooling in reaction to a sharp increase in homeschooling enrolments and an increasing number of concerns regarding child welfare in homeschool environments.
Earlier this year, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, between July 2008 and July 2012, there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of children being registered with the Board of Studies, Teaching and Education Standards to be homeschooled in NSW. As of December 2013, there were 3238 students registered.
However, the Home Education Association estimates there are approximately another 10,000 children who are unregistered and homeschooled, living and learning off the bureaucratic radar.
Deputy Chair of the Legislative Council Select Committee and NSW Greens MP, John Kaye, tells us he is very concerned by the figures.
“Homeschooling is a relatively high-risk activity. Although there are some parents – well educated, loving parents with the time to put into educating their kids – who do quite well, the reality is that homeschooling carries risks of poor educational outcomes, educational neglect and, at worst, abuse,” he says.
“In the unregistered families it is quite often the case that a child won’t ever see anyone outside of their family and their family home.”
Paul Green, a member of the Christian Democrats Party and the chair of the committee, agrees with parts of Kaye’s assessment.
“It is mind boggling that, in this day and age, we don’t know how many children are being home schooled…which says more about the process being a discouragement rather than an encouragement,” he says.
He argues the problems associated with the lack of registration stem from a system that places onerous requirements on parents who have already demonstrated an aptitude for Home Education. “Many people are not registering because they’ve lost confidence in the authority or the school process,” he tells us. He also criticises the lack of transparency in the administrative process, arguing that parents “should be able to know why [they] have been rejected.”
For Green, one of the most important – if not the most important – aims for the inquiry is facilitating freer homeschooling. He says many parents choose to homeschool their children because of valid ideological beliefs and behavioural issues.
“The state should empower them to maximise their educational potential.”
The Inquiry has received over 300 submissions from parents, lobby groups, teachers’ unions and government departments. Broadly, the submissions from pro-homeschooling stakeholders have argued for the deregulation of the sector, with many complaining the current enrolment and registration process is unnecessarily opaque, complex and inefficient.
One such submission, from the Home Education Association (HEA) – the peak representative body for homeschoolers in Australia – paints homeschooling as a “marginalised, unsupported and poorly understood educational option in NSW”, and advocates for a bureaucratic overhaul in the areas of registration and processing.
“Many NSW home educators find the current registration processes to be burdensome, intrusive, unsupportive and more focussed [sic] on compliance than on educational quality,” they write.
“The inappropriate policies of the current system, the inconsistency of Authorised Persons and the distressing registration experiences of many home educators, has led to an atmosphere of great anxiety and fear amongst parents as they approach registration.”
A submission from the Homeschooling Registration Reform Alliance of NSW reads similarly, arguing the current laws assume parental wrongdoing and are unnecessarily restrictive.
“The current heavy-handed NSW homeschooling regulations bring no benefit to our children, only intense scrutiny and repeated demands for justification of parent’s educational provision by representatives of a state education system that is out of touch with the realities of home education.”
The Alliance instead argues for a reframing of the issues of homeschooling and abuse, and says they should be treated as discrete, unrelated issues.
“Tightening homeschooling regulation off the back of misplaced views about child protection has shifted focus away from problems within the child welfare system itself. The spheres of education and child protection need to be recognised as separate.”
There is, then, consensus that the law as it currently stands is deficient.
For a start, enforcement of current provisions is rare. Bob Osmak, a member of the Home Schooling Association of Queensland (HSAQ) who educated his nine children, is the only person to have been prosecuted for homeschooling in breach of regulations. He was found guilty of not registering his 13-year-old daughter, and fined $300 along with legal costs.
He made a submission to a Parliamentary Education and Innovation Committee in which he outlined the reasons for his methodology: “I can testify that our schools are an almost total failure…The other reason for homeschooling is the violence in our schools. Teachers have lost control of students both in and out of classrooms.”
The HSAQ details the effects of its lobbying on its web page: “[Legislators] have just begun to back away from…the insistence on using the outcomes of the NSW Syllabus in the planning, assessment and reporting of educational programs.”
In addition there is a questionable “conscientious objector” clause in the regulations, which allows parents to “give the Minister written notice that the person conscientiously objects on religious grounds to registration under this Act.” What is a sufficient trigger for this exception is unclear both from the Act and the Board of Teaching Educational Standards regulations on the matter, which provide that ‘there must be satisfactory evidence that the registration would be granted if an application had been made’. The decision seems to be grounded in ministerial discretion; there is little to no transparency or oversight, and it is almost impossible to ascertain how many of these exemptions have been granted.
“No schooling context can match that of homeschooling. The amount of individual attention available to a child, the student-centred active learning, individualised learning – these are really beneficial things, pedagogically speaking.”
This is Dr Richard Walker, an Associate Professor in the Education and Social Work Faculty at the University of Sydney. He specialises in educational psychology. He tells us that, in theory, homeschooling is pedagogically ideal.
“Provided that the parents are highly educated people, who are committed to their child’s education and who have the time and energy to do a good job, homeschooling is great.”
But when we ask for his thoughts on the potential for deregulation of the sector, he‘s less optimistic.
“That seems very dangerous to me,” he says, slowly and forcefully. “Educational outcomes need to be monitored and state curriculums need to be adhered to. Homeschooling is fine – I don’t see why it can’t work satisfactorily if you have sensible, committed parents – but the reality is that not every parent is like that.”
Dr Walker is right: in many cases, homeschooling works well for children. Bridget Dennis is in her third year of a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood) at Queensland University of Technology, and she was homeschooled from grades 2 to 9.
“I enjoyed it!” she tell us. “Homeschooling suited me because I was an organised kid who would do all my ‘schoolwork’ between like 9-12 and then have the rest of the day for whatever I was currently into. Ultimately, as the eldest in the family I was seeking more social interaction with people my age so I chose to go to school in Year 10, but I don’t regret being homeschooled at all.”
When Bridget re-entered the mainstream schooling system, she was pleasantly surprised by her knowledge base, skills set and aptitude for learning.
“I had stressed myself out before going to school thinking I’d be behind, and arrived to find I was nearly a year ahead in workload and was at the top of my class in pretty much everything for the rest of schooling.”
Bridget graduated Year 12 with an OP 4, which is equivalent to an ATAR of around 92.
Carly Mckenna is in her first year of a Juris Doctor here at USyd. She was homeschooled from age 13 to 15, and she also speaks very positively about her experience.
“In my case, my mum took a very free-spirited, lax approach. Although I initially had strict timetables that I tried to work to, and syllabus outcomes that I was trying to achieve, my mum did not believe in enforcing routines, and gave little direction.”
Her mother’s relaxed approach to her education helped Carly develop into a keen independent learner.
“Instead of studying what my friends at school were, I was reading about social and cultural theory, I was listening to music I never would have discovered, I was watching things I never would have watched. It was a rich experience in many ways.”
While she admits she had difficulty readjusting to traditional education and social patterns when she returned to school for Year 10, Carly maintains that her homeschooling experience was a positive one.
“I felt like I developed a stronger sense of who I was; I became less susceptible to peer pressure, and I discovered a lot about myself and about the world – things that I would not have discovered if I had stayed in school. But I also think homeschooling can be socially isolating, and although there are many faults in conventional education, I think the social aspect is fundamental to a young person’s development – even the negative social aspects.”
The inquiry will hand down its findings and recommendations in mid-November. It is not unreasonable to predict that law reform will be slated; no-one wants 10,000 children living off the grid, and no-one wants things to continue as they are. It seems the multiplicity of cases means that legislators cannot treat every case as alike; freedom is dangerous in some cases and crucial in others.
Part of the solution is increasing the opportunities for disillusioned parents to engage with the system. That should involve opening up opportunities for students to participate in after-school activities without attending school during the day, enriching their education and mitigating the possibility of isolation.
Incentives for registration will certainly aid a substantial segment of the homeschooling community. However these changes should not free misguided or abusive parents from constraints of accountability by generating a system that has even less oversight and even more uncertainty. Homeschooling policy has consistently failed to resolve this tension, yet we hope that the inquiry will prove to be a step towards doing so.
From the other side of the world, through the little blue Facebook chat box, we relay the stories of positive homeschooling experiences and the details of some of the inquiry submissions to Jennifer. Maybe, we propose, homeschooling should be deregulated to an extent, to further enable these positive educational and personal outcomes.
“Homeschooling ought to be illegal. If I hadn’t been homeschooled, I don’t think I would have been abused less, but I think that I might have had a chance that it would have been noticed,” she replies.
“From my experience the homeschool parents that aren’t abusive are by far the minority. These parents need oversight. Almost every homeschooler I know – and I know a lot over two different countries – was abused.’”
“You really know that many abuse victims?” we ask, incredulous.