Most mornings, when kids his age are frantically getting ready for school, seven-year-old Samuel Panicker is busy hunting for eggs in his backyard chicken coop. Samuel has 10 pet hens which he tends for with his brothers Benjamin, 4, and Mattias, 2.
‘Samuel loves learning about all aspects of caring, feeding and raising birds and animals,’ says his mother Rafaela, a Brazilian expat living in Abu Dhabi for the past six years. ‘He even has an ant farm; so while everybody is trying to get rid of ants, we are collecting and caring for them.’
Rafaela decided to homeschool her children early on. As teachers in the US, she and her husband Philip (both with doctorates) realised that their best students were mostly homeschooled. ‘They outperformed other students academically and socially. Apart from that, we felt children learn more from interacting with kids of all ages and from not being bound inside a room for half of the day. We also wanted to ensure our kids have a passion for learning, were independent, had time to play and learn life skills. Homeschooling allows us to do all this while spending more time with our children and teach them moral values, go on trips, focus on sports, music and other talents,’ explains Rafaela. What makes this a win-win situation is the fact that Samuel loves learning at home too. ‘The good thing about homeschooling is that mom and dad are the teachers and you get to study and do experiments about the things that you really like, and that is fun,’ he says.
The Panickers are part of a growing movement in the UAE that has adopted homeschooling over rote educational institutions. Apart from being cost-effective, it allows parents to play an extremely active role in grooming their children into well-rounded personalities. Since learning is at an individual pace, rather than being among many in a classroom, smart ones can jump grades and weaker students can grasp concepts at their ease.
With more parents opting for this hands-on approach, online education portals have been seeing a significant spike in enrollments. In 2016, Dubai-based iCademy Middle East saw a 12 per cent increase in its K-12 American curriculum programme. Homeschool Global, an accredited home education services provider, experienced a growth rate of more than 30 per cent.
Although UAE has no specific legal requirements surrounding homeschooling, it is recommended that children follow an accredited programme, making it easier for students to re-enter mainstream schooling or attend university at some point of time. Homeschooling is recognised by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority. For higher education, children would require a transcript of their courses, a self-made portfolio and SAT results (this may vary depending on universities). A few online resources for homeschooling include iCademy, Khan Academy and Clonlara.
In the capital, Abu Dhabi Home Schoolers Association (ADHSA) is a pioneer institution that boasts more than 50 families on its roster who homeschool their kids from pre-school to high school. The Dubai and Northern Emirates Homeschooling Association has around 100 registered families.
Ask Pakistani expat Sameera Baig what the biggest aspect of homeschooling her four kids is, and her reply would be ‘a determined mother’. She stumbled upon homeschooling quite by accident eight years ago. ‘I heard a few lectures on HS and read a few books like Dumbing us Down by John Taylor Gatto and Educating your child in modern time by Hamza Yousuf. I was fortunate to find a thriving homeschooling community in ADHSA and was inspired and encouraged to see so many mothers homeschool their kids. For the first two years I designed an eclectic curriculum for my older two,’ she says.
This self-designed curriculum was based on the kids’ interests and a little bit of innovation. For instance, since her kids liked marine life, she used the Nintendo game ‘Endless Ocean’ as an educational resource. When they were learning about honey bees, the family took a field trip to a farm in Al Ain.
After the younger children grew up, Sameera started using an online curriculum, through iCademy ME. According to her only 25 per cent homeschooling depends on the curricula. ‘The rest is how you manage your kids being around you without you losing your sanity! So discipline and time management are key.’
All round achievers, her kids have participated in various competitions like History Bee and Bowl, World Scholar’s Cup, UAE Fables and fairytale story writing and have won many awards both in UAE and overseas. They are now gearing up for the forthcoming History Bee and Bowl in December and the Emirates Literature Festival in March. They have also trained in the Model United Nations in Dubai and New York and competed in the World Scholar’s Cup as well as international History competitions.
For Sharjah-based third-generation Indians, the Jazeers, homeschooling their three boys ‘is the best decision we ever made. The whole purpose was not to commercialise their education experience but make it an essential tool for them to live a blissful life. In our house there is never catching up or comparison. We only use comparative analysis as humour to make the children realise the blessings of the freedom they have compared to regular schoolers,’ says Jazeer.
Using the US-based Calvert School, they have tailor-made a programme based on the nature of each child — Umar, 10, Mohammed, 7, and Eesa, 5.
Jazeer manages the schedule while his wife Aaisha focuses on task delivery. ‘The schedule is very flexible based on the time of the year, mood of the children and the mood of the mother. We encourage them to pursue any hobby or interest they like,’ says Jazeer. Recently, Umar, who is a Lego enthusiast, was invited by Ferdous Academy, Sharjah, to conduct a Lego workshop for young children.
According to Jazeer the biggest benefit of homeschooling is making education as an experience of learning which within a class room is limited to the commercial schooling system. Kids learn based on what they want to learn instead of being forced to learn something they are not interested in. In school, if you fail in one subject you fail the year. While in homeschooling, you could be in different grades for different subjects and can even finish more grades in a year, they say.
Contrary to common perception, home schooling is not inexpensive. ‘In fact, some of the study material is very expensive,’ says Jazeer.
Financially, there is a marked difference when compared to conventional schooling, but Rafaela feels that most families in the UAE adopt it for the fact that it offers more freedom and to set the pace of study on a personalised basis. The options include making your own curriculum, blending an existing curriculum with your own preferences and following an online school.
‘The commonality is “personalisation”. I prefer to start with a custom-built curriculum when the kids are young and then gradually converting in to an online school. The financials of homeschooling depends on what one wants to achieve, but compared to brick-and-mortar schools the money is less.
‘To be fair, schools incur loads of costs in facilities and salaries so the direct comparison is not entirely correct. If a family is going through a tough financial period, I think they can consider homeschooling,’ she says.
Homeschooling parents believe that their kids do not have to face peer pressure, deal with cliques or be subject to bullying. Jennifer and Eric Stuhan decided to homeschool their children because they wanted to be the main source of their kids’ learning. ‘When our daughter Mary Helen was young, we were sending her to school at wee hours of the morning, and she would return late in the afternoon. I felt that other people (her teachers and school friends) were getting more time with my child than I was,’ explains Jennifer.
Now with three homeschooled kids, the curriculum is based on ‘pick and choose’ from different workbooks and resources. ‘We use Abeka Academy online. Back home in Texas there were many families who homeschooled and many resources available. Here in Abu Dhabi, we’ve had a little more of a challenge putting together supplies for a project,’ she says.
According to Jennifer the biggest perk of homeschooling is that her children are motivated to get to work and finish earlier to do other things they like. The children are ahead in some areas, behind in a few and average in others. But they are tested periodically to see how they are faring. ‘They attend school in their pajamas so the pressure is minimal,’ says Jennifer.
The children take weekly art lessons through a private art teacher. Mary in fact was invited to a royal’s palace to present him with a painting. The boys, John, 8, and Jack, 6, are currently playing tee-ball and baseball with Abu Dhabi Little Sluggers.
Experts, however, have a different take on homeschooling. Director of Universal American School OB Sealey believes that learning is a social endeavour. ‘The relationship between teachers and students and the structure of a well-designed lesson is critical for learning.
‘Having subject-area experts with a passion for learning in a variety of domains remains the best way to prepare students for higher education. While I’m sure you can get some of that in homeschooling, it can’t be as consistent. It works both ways. Students will always have teachers who they struggle to connect with but still must learn from. There is important learning in that too, which I worry can be too easily avoided in a homeschool situation,’ he says.
UAS is an internationally accredited IB world school which offers ancillary programmes that help students identify talents, explore passions and be a part of teams. ‘Home-schooled kids have to look further to access these types of opportunities. Some home-schooled kids I have known had trouble adjusting to the social environment of college,’ he says.
According to Sameera, lack of socialising is one of the most common misconceptions of homechooling. ‘Not having the same set of designated friends every day makes them work harder to socialise and develop friendships. Homeschool children are also better at communicating and interacting with adults and kids of different ages.’
Every time these parents mention they are homeschooling their kids, they get raised eyebrows or looks of concern. The initial criticism Sameera faced was from her family members who thought she was undertaking a lot and that it would affect the children.
‘It was like a constant examination where my failure was anticipated to be around the corner. But the same people changed their mind after seeing the maturity and performance of my children in different areas,’ she says.
As a strong advocate of homeschooling, she has spoken on many platforms to create awareness, including the Pakistani Morning Show and the Homeschooling conference in Dubai. In May, she was invited as a speaker to a Global HS conference in Russia.
Says Sameera’s daughter Reham: ‘Homeschooling gave me the flexibility of time alongside the ability to follow my passions. I am still able to make friends and never miss out on opportunities like public speaking and debating in the years I have been homeschooled.
‘I mastered the ability to work my day efficiently by doing schoolwork and balancing the other important areas of my life like extracurriculars, friends, family, and personal development.’
Umar Jazeer too is happy with the arrangement. ‘I love homeschooling because my parents teach me and I get to spend more time with them. I can study the way I want and I have lots of time to play as well.’
Another concern Sealy raises is that the flexibility of homeschooling system presented opportunities for young people to lose focus. But for the Stuhans, this flexibility allows them to explore activities and events thoroughly during weekdays where there are fewer crowds.
‘Homeschooling offers the benefits of taking a day off here and there for things the children enjoy doing. But they make it up by doing school five days of the week,’ she says.
Homeschooling parents assert that the vast range of educational experiences have made their children more mature and open-minded. ‘The sky is the limit with what you want to teach your children. Our singular aim is to make our children well rounded, conscious, responsible citizens of the world,’ says Rafaela.