Sunday, March 10, 2013

Home Educating Families 'Flying Under the Radar'

Last year Ian Townsend (ABC RN Opting Out and Staying Home http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/home-schooling/3792578) estimated that there are approximately 50,000 home educated children in Australia, most of them not registered. (It needs to be recognised that there is a large number of home educating children aged both under and over the age of compulsory schooling: the regulating authorities won’t process registrations for these students and they may be counted as ‘unregistered’ by journalists gathering statistics.)

A lack of understanding by parents of their legal responsibilities regarding the education of their children is one of the main reasons for unregistered home education families. Home education is provided for in all state and territory legislation, though regulations and implementation differs considerably between jurisdictions. I encourage all home educating families to read the relevant sections of the Education Act for their state or territory and research regulations, policies and guidelines regarding the provision of home education, and to maintain dated educational records of their children’s progress.

Some families find the application process inconvenient, intrusive, arbitrary or largely irrelevant to their children’s learning experiences and opportunities. Especially as help in the form of support, resources, assessment or funding is not provided by the regulatory authority: home educating parents are on their own.

Many of these families opt to protest what they consider to be inadequate provision by not by abiding the legislative requirements, and are prepared to defend what they believe to be their right to educate their children from home if necessary. They keep appropriate records which demonstrate their children are not being disadvantaged educationally, developmental and socially by not attending school. Courts generally require a roll marking the days the children were receiving instruction (education). Some state legislation may indicate a minimum number of days or hours a day of instruction and some require that the state syllabus or curriculum is followed.

Under State Information on my page http://homeschoolaustralia.com/sitemap.html there are links to home education information for each state, including links to state education legislation. There is also information on the Home Education Association website http://hea.edu.au.

Based on over twenty years of experience, my perception is that the number of non-registered or non-exempted from attending school home educating students is actually gradually and naturally decreasing. In addition to all states and territories allowing provision for home education (either by registration or exemption from attending school), I think the main reason for the decrease is that information is now easily available about home education. All state and territory authorities now include detailed information about the application process on their websites. Home educating authorities are also more informed about the nature of home education with realistic expectations and growing acceptance of the essential differences between school and home education. It is also easier to locate accurate information and find support from existing home educating families and groups. All this allows families to feel empowered and confident about their choice. Overall, it is much easier to be approved as a home educating family although funding for the offices that oversee registrations hasn’t kept pace with the demand.  

The population of non-registered students is aging and moving into adult life: this will also have an effect on decreasing the number of students ‘flying under the radar’.

Add to this a new factor compelling families to register: the effect of recent changes to the Social Security Act in relation to parenting payments. Home educating families dependent on financial assistance from the government need to be registered in order to be exempt from the activity test. I believe that the numbers of home education registrations have more or less doubled each year as a result. 

My focus is less on the how many students are unregistered and more on the reasons why. Understanding this may help identify problems that can be overcome and might lead to families accessing a wider range of resources as well as help to promote home education as an alternative, especially for families in need.

One problem facing many families reluctant to register is the requirement for the child’s birth parent consent on the application form. In addition to the Education Act, authorities are obliged to satisfy the requirements of other Acts, for example, Family Law. It can be difficult and distressing for parent applying for home education where the child doesn’t have, or may never have had, a relationship with the absent parent. In some situations registration may not be an option for some families without putting them at risk. 

The current emphasis on the economy (a ‘working’ Australia rather than a ‘parenting’ Australia) adds a negative bias to the application and interview process. The prejudice against single parent families in our society is subtle but significant.

Stories of negative experiences with the education authorities continue to have an effect of dissuading families from registration, though much less than in the past. It is my experience that if the family encounters an anti-registration home educating support group or person before contacting the authorities they'll be less likely to register in the first instance. Many unregistered families report being overwhelmed by the information provided by the authorities and consider complying with the requirements as an unnecessary or unwelcome burden of work. Hard to understand educational jargon puts off other families.

I have also consistently noticed that families with children with special needs seem to be required to jump through more hoops when they register. A reason, less often encountered than a couple of decades ago, given by some families for not registering as home educators is that they do not recognise the State’s authority regarding the education of the children. This is usually related to their religious beliefs.
Families who begin home educating and are unregistered either have never sent their children to school at all; have moved house at the same time as removing their children from school; or have not notified the home education authority if they move (not provided a forwarding address). I haven’t heard of any unregistered families being fined once they decide to register: they simply fill out the application form and comply with the requirements. Keeping records of their children’s home education while unregistered is helpful during this transition.

There is considerable support for home educating families, whether they are registered or not, within the Australian home education community. It doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue within the community as it does to the media: we simply get on with the business of providing our children with the education they need and deserve.
 
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