My journey from homeschooling sceptic to homeschool cheerleader was in two parts. There is the practical journey, which takes in literacy, numeracy, and science; and there is what I will call the emotional journey.
My practical journey actually pre-existed. As a teenager, I would routinely read the essays submitted to my university lecturer mother by her aspiring-teacher students. Spelling and grammar were consistently appalling, but it was the sentences containing no discernible meaning that I particularly enjoyed. So I was predestined to begin sentences with a chronologically smug ‘In my day we were taught correct…’
But my practical journey proper began when I was at a relative’s house, and I noticed a letter on the kitchen bench. My niece’s primary teacher had written to parents and had taken it upon herself to use four different fonts. The document was an aesthetic war zone, but when spelling and grammar were considered, it was a literary apocalypse.
At that moment in the kitchen I charted a course for the homeschool. Schooling — as I understood it — had always been a collaborative exercise between teachers and parents, with the primacy belonging to the parent. But formal schooling, it seemed to me, was the most obvious forum for the teaching of at least basic literacy and numeracy.
The reality, however, is that our schools just don’t do well at these areas, which are where most parents need the most help. According to the Federal Government, 75,000 kids failed to meet the Naplan minimum reading standard last year, and many thousands more were below average. In the face of such grim figures, it’s surprising to see Australia ranked sixth overall on the OECD table for literacy, numeracy and science, but this is a smoke-and-mirrors trick.
The dumbing down of education has taken over our schools, as it has throughout the western world. In once academic disciplines such as English, knowledge is forsaken for the imperatives of creativity and expression. As the Chair of Language and Communication at Oxford remarked, ‘I actually deplore the use of the words “correct” and “incorrect” in relation to language… I really hate people being given inferiority complexes over the way they talk or write.’ Well yes, but isn’t it the job of education to correct deficiencies, rather than to imagine every existing rule and convention as optional?
Accounts of essentially illiterate university students are legion, and some of them graduate in education. Hence the letter on the kitchen bench. And so, while the priority of literary and numeracy is diminished, other ways of spending class time happily fill the void. Here begins my emotional journey, and it’s emotional for two reasons.
Firstly, the subjects that fill the void are, from the progressive educationalist’s perspective, best taught emotionally. I have a ‘class news’ sheet from one state high school which reports on the Australian ‘refugee crisis’ that students had discussed. Readers of this magazine won’t be surprised, but the news sheet is completely devoid of any sensible discussion on border integrity, international law, human rights, broader immigration policy, or even the underlying factors that necessitate people attempting hazardous sea journeys. Rather, it is replete with pithy quotes about ‘refugees [being] people too,’ Israel being racist, and Palestinians arriving by boat (although to be fair, the context suggests some confusion of Palestine with Yemen). It is also laden with spelling mistakes which were obviously overlooked lest any student be given an inferiority complex.
I should say, however, that all things being equal I love this type of discussion. And in homeschooling I imagine there will be ample opportunity for wide-ranging discussion, and earnest colloquy about current issues in society, politics and culture. The problem, of course, is that all things are not equal. Up to 75,000 children failing to meet minimum Naplan standards puts the equation way out.
And yet, emotional, politically correct orthodoxies are woven into every part of the curriculum as the teachers and schools invest heavily in areas which should be the preserve of parents, leaving parents to deal with literacy and numeracy issues as they supervise homework and pay for private tuition. In the impending national curriculum, omnipresent ‘cross-curriculum priorities’ such as ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ touch all areas of study, doubtless with their progressive agendas and dumbed down, emotional philosophies and methodologies of education.
Secondly, it’s an emotional journey because I get emotional about it. Remember we’re in the realm of history, philosophy, the environment, the arts, literature, and economics — rather than lexical meanings, and moods, tenses and cases, or algebra and geometry. These incorporate the foundations of religion, politics, activism, human rights, questions of good and evil, and questions of life and death. And I get emotional as I think about how these things will be taught to my kids, and by whom.
In all states, a child must either attend a registered school, or be registered as homeschooled. The former requires submission to the prescribed curriculum, but so does the latter, together with the attendant key learning areas and cross-curriculum priorities. And lest parents who choose the homeschooling option be lazy or uncommitted, the government employs inspectors — euphemistically titled ‘consultants’ — to pry into homes and pore over workbooks. Of course, their main job is to enforce the curriculum, and while people who volunteer to do that may be unmoved by correct spelling, they will be very particular about correct language!
Having arrived at my homeschooling destination, it would seem a pity then to submit to the state’s curriculum and inspection regime. And besides, my general rule is that government agents produce warrants before entering my home. Perhaps one day they will come equipped with one, and require my kids attend an approved school to be re-educated in accordance with Canberra’s edicts. But until then I’ll teach my kids literacy, numeracy and science using some of the range of curricula available. And, with the help of authors and experts of my choosing, I’ll educate them in what they need to know to understand their society, culture, politics, economy, and heritage. And I won’t be telling the bureaucrats.
Chris Ashton is completing masters degrees in church history (Presbyterian Theological Centre) and United States studies (University of Sydney).