By ISABELLE STACKPOOL
Eight-year-old Sierra has a hard time sitting still. Her body is constantly moving, up and down, twitching and tapping. She bounces around the room, jumping across furniture and playfully crawling along the floor.
Her mum explains that this is where the classroom problems started. That her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) got her into trouble. Teachers would describe her as unfocused and irritable. But the trouble really began when Sierra started coming home with a decreasing number of eyelashes.
Sierra’s mother, Gabrielle Costello, explains that she had taken her daughter to see a doctor and discovered that she had developed trichotillomania, an anxious reaction that manifests in the compelling urge to pull out eyelashes, eyebrows, hair from the scalp and other parts of the body. Currently in year three, Sierra was diagnosed with the condition in 2018. She developed this coping mechanism as problems began mounting at her local primary school.
Gabrielle says, “The school was supposed to be helping, but more often than not failed doing so… the school even told us she needed one on one assistance, but they weren’t going to give it to her.”
Home schooling on the increase
Gabrielle eventually became one of thousands of Australians choosing to home school, making the difficult decision to pull Sierra out of her mainstream schooling in July of this year.
Australian schools are designed to accommodate every child, regardless of factors such as gender, race or ability. The Australian Government sets expectations that children with special needs should be supported in class, and provide funding to do so.
Home schooling in Australia is steadily increasing in popularity. Each year, more parents are choosing to enrol their children in home education. The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) published its most recent home schooling data in March 2019, indicating a large rise in numbers. In NSW alone from 2014 to 2018, registrations for home schooling increased by 65%. The number of registered children jumped by more than 2,000.
“What I can tell you is that the numbers are moving up dramatically, in all states,” explains Ellen Brown, Director of Teaching at Complete Education Australia, an online platform that offers home schooling programs. The service has been in operation for seven years, with more than 3,000 students Australia-wide.
Home-schooling data is difficult to obtain as the ABS began tracking such figures only in the late 2000s. However, there may be more children in home schooling than is indicated by the figures.
Brown says many students turn to home education when mainstream schooling is no longer working for them. “Home schooling allows flexibility and many students value this in both time and their learning content.”
Brown also emphasises that there is a harmful stereotype that children who are home schooled learn less. She notes that, “Home school students are just as well equipped as any student in any classroom”.
The strength of home schooling lies in its ability to be flexible, but still carry out all the subjects and topics of a mainstream curriculum. She mentions there is nothing necessarily wrong with the Australian mainstream schooling system, merely that education should be a choice based on individual needs.
“Each has its place and will suit different families,” she says.
Since starting home-schooling, Gabrielle says that each day Sierra will tackle some general worksheets while Gabrielle works on putting together assessment resources.
“She is meant to be year three, but I am not confident she is at that level thanks to being left behind in the schooling system. So I am gauging her understanding of year one and two content first.”
Is this better for Sierra? Gabrielle definitely thinks so.
“I wouldn’t say there has been anything difficult so far. Surprising I think is how well we’ve handled spending so much time together. I was expecting some clashes for sure, but she’s far more cooperative than when she was at school.”
The right choice
Sierra is now sleeping and eating much better. With full support from Sierra’s psychologist, doctor, occupational therapist and speech therapist, Gabrielle is confident that they have made the right choice for their daughter.
“She’s happier, calmer, with fewer emotional outbursts and is generally more co-operative.”
Her eating and trichotillomania can be monitored, with both parents helping her with management strategies set up by her psychologist. It still happens but nowhere near as severely. Sierra is now happy and productive – with weekly attendances at ballet, singing and drama.
Gabrielle says, “We will just go with the flow. If Sierra asks to go back to school we will do it or at least work towards preparing her to return, but right now she has no interest in going back.”
Dr Nikki Brunker is an academic from the University of Sydney who specialises in alternative schooling and education. Given her extensive research into children’s learning and psychology, she is becoming increasingly concerned with Australia’s mainstream schooling, noting, “We have a broken system that is full of competing demands that is damaging children and teachers.”
She emphasises the importance of focusing on a child’s individual needs, “we have an increasingly standardised system of education that values conformity, leading to significant levels of exclusion of children for whom that approach to schooling does not fit.”
“I am infuriated by the constant focus to ensure children are ‘on-task’, yet we know that learning requires lots of ‘off-task’ behaviours such as daydreaming and physical activity after intellectual input.”
Dr Brunker also notes that many parents chose alternative schooling for their children with special needs, due to the tailored approach to teaching and learning.
However, not every academic or educator believes the school system is broken. Kay Margetts is an Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies at The University of Melbourne. She confirms that alternative education is a very personal choice for each family and their values. It does not mean something is lacking in Australian mainstream schooling, only that, “It provides options to families to school children in the ways they want to.”
Flexibility and freedom
Anne Buckingham is an art therapist, with three children who have all experienced their fair share of alternative education. So much so that Anne laughs, joking with husband Chris that they were ‘experimented on’.
While Anne and Chris were both raised and educated in the UK, their move to Australia inspired an interest in alternative styles of education.
Anne explains: “The whole of the education system was new to us and was very different. So I think in some ways, because of that, it enabled us to look more broadly. We didn’t have a history of ‘this is what our families did here, or this is what our neighbours do here’.”
Anne describes the appeal of alternative schooling, “it just seems to provide some flexibility and freedom for the child. So it seemed to be lots of options for what the children could do, there wasn’t a set format of ‘this is what happens every day’.”
In the beginning, they chose alternative pre-schooling in Lane Cove, at Currambena Primary School, before settling on the Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School for primary.
On making the decision she says, “I think the fact that it was non-competitive and knowing that the children would be able to develop at their own rate and in their own way. And there was still a huge element around play and sort of being able to just be children.”
Reflecting on why parents are increasingly seeking alternative methods, Anne explains, “I think there’s an awful lot of pressure on children.”
She notes that assessments and NAPLAN can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Many of her art therapy patients also experience bullying in mainstream schooling.
One particular reason for choosing alternative schools is also their ability to accommodate for different learning needs, “I think they do provide more of a focus on ‘what does this child need?’ and allow for a lot more creativity around learning,” says Anne.
After a few years at Steiner, Anne’s children moved to the Inner Sydney Montessori School in Balmain to finish their primary education. This provided “a bit more of a structured approach”, while still being non-competitive and allowing self-directed learning.
Anne’s two older girls managed a taste of mainstream education before embarking upon a home schooling adventure. In 2012 the family spent a year travelling in France. As they were outside of Australia they were not limited to the regular curriculum and Anne tailored their education to suit the children’s individual needs, explaining, “We chose our own home schooling, really, we could do that because we weren’t here. So I think that was very different, depending on the child”.
Anne harnessed the self-directed, passion-driven learning that her children had picked up in their primary schooling and utilised the environment around them for their education. She describes trips down to the local riverbed to observe and learn about biology. She fondly recalls the time as “a great experience” assuring that the siblings slotted back into regular schooling with no troubles.
Anne reflects on how the alternative education has shaped her kids. According to her, they are well-rounded, compassionate and thoughtful, with a love of learning. They also have an “overall sense of being able to have the whole project and to look at it from different angles.”
Anne notes, “You know, I can see how that translates into some of the things they talk about now. Like everything’s not a one-sided way of looking at something; they’re able to look at different aspects of things.”