How many home-educated children are there in NI?
It isn’t possible to give an accurate figure for this. There is no official register of home-educated children in NI - and there’s no legal requirement to inform anyone that you are home-educating. In the UK, it is estimated that approximately 1% of “school-aged” children are educated at home; the proportion is probably lower (but growing) in NI.
What kind of people choose to home-educate? Why do people choose to home-educate?
All kinds of people home-educate, and they do so for a wide variety of reasons.
Home-educators can be wealthy or broke; conservatives or radicals; religious or atheist; have large families or only children - or anything in between.
Some people choose to home-educate because of difficulties or potential difficulties at school, such as bullying, or because their child learns at a different pace to the “average” child. Others don’t like the school choices available to them. Some choose to home-educate because they want to give their children a faith-based education; others because they want to avoid the kind of religious education offered in schools. Some feel that 4 years of age is too young to be starting school (no other country in Europe has compulsory education starting at 4). Some want their children to have a more rigourous academic experience; others want their children to have more freedom. Most will have a combination of several of these reasons.
Who can home-educate? Do I need to be a teacher?
Any parent can choose to home-educate his or her child; there is no requirement for any special training or qualifications. Teaching in a classroom environment is very different from the kind of learning in small groups found in families - in fact many home-educating parents who have trained as teachers say that their training is an obstacle, rather than a help.
Is home-education legal? Isn’t school compulsory? I’ve heard about parents being taken to court because their children didn’t attend school!
The law does not require school attendance; it requires educational provision. Here’s what it says:
“The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.”
Home-education is legal throughout the UK and Ireland. The prosecutions you may have heard about involve truancy, which is a a completely separate issue. Truancy involves children who are registered at school but who do not attend - by definition, a child who is not registered at school cannot be a truant.
For more information about the law and education in NI, see our Legal Information page.
Do we need permission to home-educate?
You don’t need anyone’s permission to educate your child outside school. If your child is registered at a school, you must inform the proprietor (that’s usually the principal) in writing that your child’s name should be removed from the register. Some teachers and principals believe that you need permission to home-educate, but this is not the case. The only exception is when your child is registered at a Special School. (See our Legal Information page for more info.)
Will I get any help from the Board of Education?
It’s unlikely. Few home-educators find that their school Board is able to provide any assistance, and certainly there is no financial help available (though home-education does not need to be costly, so that shouldn’t put anyone off).
Will we have home visits or be monitored in some way?
There is nothing in NI law which says you must have home visits, provide samples of your children’s work, have anyone meet your children, etc. There seems to be a great deal of variation in how home-educators are treated by Education Boards, even within the individual Boards. You may be told that the Board have a legal duty to monitor your educational provision or visit your home, but there is nothing in law which states this.
In England and Wales, case law has established that if it appears to a Local Education Authority (LEA - equivalent of Education Board in NI) that no educational provision is being made, the LEA has the right to make informal enquiries; however this does not necessarily mean home visits or inspections of any kind. You can read about these guidelines here. No guidelines or case law exist in NI; it does, however, seem reasonable that similar guidelines should apply (especially since the relevant legislation almost word-for-word the same as that for England and Wales).
What if my child has a statement of special needs?
You can still home-educate. If your child attends a Special School, you may need to get permission to deregister him or her; however such permission should not be withheld without good reason (see our Legal Information page). If your child has a statement and attends an ordinary primary school, you can simply deregister him or her.
Does my child have to take SATS?
No. SATS are intended to assess the educational provision made by schools, not the learning of any individual child, and thus are unnecessary for home-educated children. Many home-educators feel that not having to put their children through the pressure of SATS is a great advantage.
How do we start?
If your child is in school, you must deregister him or her. If not, you don’t need to inform anyone - just get on with it
How do we home-educate?
There are many different ways to home-educate, ranging from school-at-home (complete with workbooks and chalkboards) to autonomous (child-led) education. Most families probably fall somewhere in-between. You can use workbooks or not, have formal lessons or not… it’s entirely up to you. Many families find that their children need a period of no formal lessons when they first come out of school, as a time to adjust. This is well-recognised and is known as deschooling.
Must we keep to school hours or terms?
No - your family can learn in whatever way suits you all best, and at the times which suit you all best
Do we need to follow the National Curriculum or teach specific subjects?
No. You may wish to follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum (or the National Curriculum for England and Wales, which is largely the same, which is more readily-available on-line, and has many more workbooks etc written for it), but there is no requirement to do so. Some home-educating families follow it, some use it as a rough guide, and some see it more as a restriction than a help. How you use it is entirely up to you. Many home-educators don’t think of learning as a series of acadmic subjects at all.
How can I teach my children a subject I know nothing about, or one I’m no good at?
Don’t worry - there are lots of ways to deal with this situation! To begin with, many home-educating parents find they learn alongside their child. As children get a little older, they’re usually very capable of finding for themselves the resources and support they need in order to study a particular subject or topic. And home-educating doesn’t mean that you have to do everything - you can use the expertise you’ll find all around you. Use libraries as much as you can - librarians are often delighted to find a child with a strong interest in something. Maybe a grandparent is knowledgeable about maps and map-making and would be glad to share that knowledge. Maybe there’s a neighbour who’d be willing to talk with your child about aerodynamics… Whatever the topic, there’s almost always someone to turn to, and people are usually delighted to have the opportunity to share their expertise and enthusiasm with an interested learner. Visits to places like the Ulster Museum, the Ulster-American Folk Park and the Folk Park and Transport Museum are wonderful ways to learn history. W5 in Belfast is a fabulous science centre with great staff (and they give home-educating families the school rate too!) There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, and you can tap into it.
How will I know whether my child is learning?
You will know, because you’ll see it. The time you spend with your child will make it clear that they’re learning - and you’ll easily see too what they’re having difficulty with. You’ll be talking to your child and he’ll tell you all about what makes that trail in the sky behind a jet-plane. Or he’ll start counting how many syllables there are in words as you drive along in the car. Or he’ll tell you about how children used to have to go out to work when they were only 9 or 10 years old. Or how gravity is the reason people in Australia don’t fall off the world. All of those examples come from my own family - without us ever having covered any of those subjects formally. All you have to do is be there and willing to listen.
Is home-education expensive?
It can be as expensive as you want to make it. You can spend a small fortune on supplies - and many home-educators do, when they first start out. (It’s good advice to buy only what you need at first, rather than everything that looks good.) There are also lots of free resources available - for example, librarians are usually helpful and there’s a wealth of resources on the internet.
How will I find the time to home-educate?
Home-education does take up time, there’s no denying it - but not nearly as much as people usually think. If you’re home-educating more or less autonomously, you’ll be learning through living - you won’t have school to babysit for several hours a day, of course, but you adapt. Even if you’re home-educating in a very formal way, doing school-at-home, you’ll be able to cover the work much more quickly than a teacher in a classroom situation: you’re working closely with a small number of children and can immediately see if they understand a concept and change how it’s being presented if they aren’t. There’s no time spent lining up to get in or out of the classroom, or handing out books or homework papers, or going to assembly or lunch etc either.
Where can I find educational supplies?
You can buy some books, such as those in the Letts range, from bookshops or stationery shops. You can also buy workbooks from companies like CGP or Schofield and Sims. Opitec is wonderful for all sorts of paper and arts and crafts supplies, and School Surplus often have amazing deals on offer. There are lots of others too - you can find some listed on our Resources page.
What about exams? Can my children take GCSEs or A-levels? What if they want to go to university?
Home-educated children can sit GCSEs or A-levels as external candidates, through correspondence courses, or by going through a local college. Many home-educated children take one or two GCSEs at a time, rather than a whole bunch in one year, or they bypass GCSEs altogether and go straight to A-levels. Some don’t do GCSEs or A-levels but are offered college places or apprenticeships based on their experience and skills, and some study through the Open University. We know of several home-educated students from NI who have gone on to university. Many home-educators have found that universities are often more interested in a student who’s been home-educated, because they’re used to working with less supervision and because they’ve had a wider range of experiences than most school-attending children. In North America, some of the top universities actively recruit homeschooled students, because they’ve had such positive experiences with them. Home-educating certainly doesn’t mean you can’t get formal qualifications.
What about socialisation?
This is one of the most frequently-asked questions about home-education - so much so, in fact, that we’ve devoted a whole page to it here. But briefly, the answer to this depends on what you mean by “socialisation”.
Do you mean “How will my child make friends and get to spend time with others his/her age?”
If so, the answer is “In lots of ways”. Your child can spend time with other local children outside school hours. He or she can be part of organisations like Scouts, or local drama groups, or dance classes, or St John’s Ambulance, or martial arts classes, or… well, you get the idea. In fact, your child will probably have more time and energy available for those kinds of activities because he or she won’t be spending all day in school and all evening doing homework. Many home-educating parents also find that their children develop friendships with people of many different ages and backgrounds, rather than mostly having friends who are similar to themselves.
Or perhaps you mean “How will my child learn to get along with other people, to fit in? Will my child grow up to be a misfit?”
Many home-educators would argue that the process of socialisation - that is, learning to get along with others - isn’t served well by the school experience. They would question whether the limited nature of children’s social experience at school prepares them adequately for the realities of adult life. School is only “real life” for as long as you attend, unless you go on to be a teacher. Real “real life” is very different to classroom “real life”.
In a school classroom (and this is particularly true in NI), most of the children will probably have broadly similar backgrounds, have had broadly similar experiences, and will have been born within the same academic year. Many home-educators feel that this is a unique and very contrived scenario which is not repeated in any other aspect of life, and that home-educated children have opportunities to meet a much wider variety of people, and to learn many different things - including social skills - from people of all backgrounds and all ages - just as they will through the rest of their lives.
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