Registrations of home school students have been increasing since 1999 and, according to a recent ABC article, they have spiked in the last couple of years. Concerns arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic are noted as one of the primary causes of the recent growth in the decision to home school. The effects on schools of the increasing home school population include loss in enrolment income and the loss of long-term students. Prevention strategies should be put in place within schools and feedback should be encouraged if schools wish to reduce this risk.
What Are the Numbers?
The ABC article also reports on Home Education Association (HEA) data that shows that home school registrations have increased by at least 9 per cent in all Australian states and territories between 2019 and 2021. All states and territories apart from Tasmania have reported over a 19 per cent increase. From 2019 to mid-2021, Queensland had the highest increase in home school registration with a 46 per cent change.
The VRQA's home schooling page states that “[t]he number of children registered for home schooling grows each year”. In Victoria the number of children registered for home schooling increased by 20 percent from 2019 to 2020. The NESA data relating to home schooling in 2020 reveals that from 2019 to 2020 New South Wales home schooling registrations also rose by 20 per cent.
Why Are People Home Schooling?
The practice of home schooling children has always coexisted with the mainstream education system and has been slowly increasing. According to Calvert Education, a United States home schooling business, there are five main reasons that U.S. parents choose to home school their children:
- changing from a negative school environment
- to receive a higher quality of education
- to improve social interactions
- to supporting a child with disability
- family relocation or distance from a suitable school.
The most notable and common of these reasons is a “negative school environment” with most parents claiming that mental health or bullying was the deciding factor to home school.
In 2020, the Australian Government commissioned six investigations into the potential effects of learning from home during COVID-19 on vulnerable cohorts of young people. The report concluded that almost half of the national school student population were vulnerable to negative impacts from learning at home and that it was likely to cause increased stress and anxiety. Further findings suggested that online learning could cause some students to become disengaged entirely. A survey conducted in November 2020 found that half of the parents polled had concerns about their child falling behind due to the disruptions from COVID-19. The Royal Children's Hospital National Child Health Poll also indicated that one in three parents say that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their child’s mental health.
Another shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase in the amount of time that families spent together. The Royal Children's Hospital National Child Health Poll reported that 75 per cent of families felt closer and 80 per cent of parents felt that the pandemic had given them time to realise what was important to their family. This follows a trend ‘The Great Resignation’, which we wrote about recently in a School Governance article, where people have quit their jobs to spend time with their family and adopt new perspectives.
Anecdotal conversations with schools have indicated that, where grades and career prospects have previously been a key motivating factor in school selection, many people are now prioritising what they believe is the best for the child. Therefore, the new reasons that parents and carers give for opting to home school their children are:
- fear of contracting Covid-19
- the desire for long-term continuity and stability
- the burden of paying school fees
- new perspectives.
The ABC article referred to above also quotes an interview with Home Education Association president Karen Chegwidden, who affirmed that the surge in popularity for home schooling had been fuelled by COVID-19 and the uncertainty around schools closing.
The West Australian reported yesterday that many parents are objecting to the mandatory mask-wearing requirement that has been put in place in WA primary schools. The WA Primary Principals Association president Niel Smith is reported as saying that school leaders have “experienced a backlash from parents” in relation to this issue and that there is also “an increase in demand from parents around home-schooling information…”.
However, it is important to remember that, although COVID-19 has been a contributing factor to the increase in the number of parents home schooling their children, the numbers were already increasing prior to the COVID pandemic. Whether it is a commentary on a particular school in some cases or our education system in general, the home school trend is increasing within Australia.
The idea of home school is becoming more popular each year across the country. Registrations show that the proportion of home schooled children is double what it was six years ago, and the growth rate has significantly increased since COVID-19. The hybrid working model is being adopted by many organisations and therefore some parents have more time or flexibility to be directly involved in their children’s education. The new normal is still being realised and statistics suggest that home school education will continue to increase beyond COVID-19.
What Are the Impacts on Schools?
The ABC article further states that “homeschooling is understood to be “the fastest growing education sector”.
While the number of home schooled children may only be in the tens of thousands, there is a potential economic impact for schools of losing students. in Victoria, there was a 20 per cent increase in home school enrolments state-wide, and in that, regional student registrations had a 40 per cent increase. The article in The Conversation about nationwide home school registered students found that the proportion of students who were home schooled ranged from 4 to 14 per 1000 students depending on the state or territory. These numbers may seem small, but the proportion is double what it was in 2015. It is also widely recognised that these numbers only account for registered home schooled children and therefore these statistics are an underestimate. This is also likely to have a greater impact in regional areas where the rate of home schooling is proportionally higher. Also, it may have an impact on boarding schools if families choose the home schooling option. In early 2021, many boarding schools were unsure how they would continue to operate if they had a COVID outbreak which further concerned parents.
On top of the loss of potential income, schools may lose key pupils who participate meaningfully in the school community. As academic performance has suffered for many due to the pandemic, parents may pull high performing students out of school. High performing students are invaluable to a school’s reputation and future success. Another group that would negatively impact the school to lose would be influential students and positive role models as it would mean a loss of social capital.
Response and Prevention
Home schooling will always be a parental right. As noted in this article and in the various media references, there are many reasons why parents would choose this option to educate their children. However, as we are now learning to 'live with COVID' the current pandemic and fear of the disease or the fear of constant school closures will probably no longer be as big a contributing factor as has been noted in the last 12 to 18 months.
The change in life circumstances that so many people experienced during the past two years, including parents being more directly aware of and involved in their child’s schooling and educational outcomes as a result of lockdowns and online learning, may have also changed some parents and carers’ mindsets about what’s important and they no longer feel satisfied with the mode of delivery of their child’s education. This could be an opportunity for schools to reflect and potentially reset in some areas. Key questions that schools could consider are:
- Are any parental concerns regarding their child’s quality of education reasonable, and how can the school combat this?
- If there is a negative school environment that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, what measures have been put in place to reassure families?
Schools should also engage with parents and guardians to promote the holistic nature of the education that they can provide for the students. This would also include extra-curricular opportunities available and the ‘value adding’ to each child’s overall educational journey. The school should promote more than just a classroom-based education; it should show that it is a community that genuinely cares about students. Good communication and transparency are important to show this as well as developing caregiver trust for the education provider.
Schools can implement control measures to combat other issues causing concern for parents. For example, the fear of COVID-19 spreading can be addressed by maintaining a thorough cleaning routine. Schools could create and distribute infection prevention checklists to all staff. The data collected from regular checklists should be reported on so that key stakeholders can see that the school is managing cleanliness responsibly and this must then be communicated with parents and guardians.
As well as systems for infection prevention strategies, school facilities should include systems in place for up-to-date and easily accessible feedback. In addition, if parents have any concerns about their child’s education, they should be able to communicate this to the most appropriate person at the school via well documented, expedient and easily accessible communication channels. Feedback and evaluation are essential to understanding how a school is performing, improving, or lacking. A way to mitigate the risk of losing student enrolments is to invite concerned parents or guardians to meet in person and discuss their concerns. Complaints and suggestions should be taken seriously and evaluated over time. The school should be able to provide a report with data showing the improvements and changes made because of concerns raised.
Schools may already be following best practice behind the scenes, but parents and carers takers won’t know this if it is not communicated to them. Effective communication should be a priority for all staff in schools. This article by UNICEF outlines improvement strategies for communication between schools and parents and suggests using multiple channels of communication to reach the greatest number of people. These include:
- online conferences (Zoom, Skype, etc.)
- phone calls
- school website
- social media platforms (e.g. Facebook)
Using a multi-directional approach to communicating information is a good strategy to reach a larger audience. Staff need to be accessible to parents or guardians of students and the school policy of parent teacher communication should be easily attainable, with clear expectations for both parties.