New Delhi: Climbing trees, cooking lunch and choosing their own subjects to study, this is how a day of learning looks like for Ravleen Kaur’s three children — a girl and two boys. These children, in the age group of 7-10 years, have never been to a formal school.
Kaur, who stays in a Gujarat village, is among a small group of parents in the country who are homeschooling or, as they prefer to call it, “unschooling” their children. The group, according to them, has been growing bigger since the pandemic, which led schools to shut down and opt for online lessons.
Homeschooling or unschooling is a way of learning where children learn at home instead of being enrolled in a school for a formal education. While some parents follow a set syllabus, others let the child drive the process by deciding what they want to learn next.
Another emerging trend is that of parents of older children opting out of regular schools, for purely practical reasons. Earlier, only those who didn’t want to tie their children down to a formal system of learning chose to homeschool them. But the recent syllabus reduction by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which designs school syllabus, has prompted parents of older kids to choose this route.
While there is no data available on how many children are being homeschooled in the country, some of the parents ThePrint spoke to said they had pulled their child out of school in Class 10 to facilitate their preparation for either engineering (JEE) or medical entrance (NEET) exams. These children attend only online coaching classes for the purpose, spending the rest of their time in self-study.
Such children are either enrolled with the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) to appear for exams or go to ‘dummy schools’, which are conventional institutes that do not have mandatory attendance but will allow students to appear for exams.
Take the case of the Dubeys, who came to Delhi from Nashik earlier this year. Kavita Dubey, an engineer who quit her job to homeschool her 15-year-old daughter Divya, said to ThePrint over the phone, “When we got to know about the NCERT syllabus reduction, we decided to stop sending our daughter to school. She is in Class 10 and wants to appear for NEET later.
“She is enrolled in a school from where she will write her board exams but attendance is not mandatory there. She studies through online tutorials for NEET.”
The University Grants Commission (UGC), in the credit framework released this April for schools and higher education institutions, recommended that homeschooling and other alternative ways of learning be accepted as formal education.
Experts in the field recognise the benefits of homeschooling too, but acknowledge that its overall impact has to be gauged yet.
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‘Learning at own pace’
Kaur said she was part of a WhatsApp group with fellow homeschooling parents, and their ranks were growing. “The number was around 60 people pre-pandemic, but has gone up to 150 recently. I also get a lot of queries from parents, asking me how my husband and I are homeschooling our kids,” she added.
Some parents also see homeschooling as a good way of saving money. Their savings, only from school fees, are anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh annually, they said.
Santosh Sharma, a Bhopal-based education consultant, opted to homeschool his son post-pandemic. He said he had been toying with the idea for a while but the pandemic provided the opportunity for it.
His son Jai, now at the level of a Class 7 student, has been homeschooled for the last two years. “My son learns at his own pace… if one day he feels like studying only English, he will read books and poetry and I will give him tasks, like interpreting the poem. Some day, if he feels like studying maths, that’s what he will do. There are no set periods and timings for him,” said Sharma.
“I was not satisfied with what he was being taught in his school and with the pandemic and online learning, things got worse as I realised that his learning levels were degrading. That is when I decided to take matters into my own hands,” he added.
“My wife (a preschool teacher) and I both teach him at home. Different homeschoolers have their ways of teaching, some follow a syllabus, I do not. My focus is on enhancing his skills and basic concepts,” he said.
Another parent, Gurugram-based Arpita Dutta, who has a five-year-old daughter, said the “pandemic has made parents realise that they can teach their children at home with online learning tools and a lot of other support, provided they have the time”.
“I am a college teacher and I know how schools work. I make time to teach my daughter… I do not like the way schools teach young children and the option for alternative schools with experiential learning is very expensive,” she said.
What about social skills?
School, however, is not just about learning to read and write. It is also about making friends, learning social skills and developing a sense of teamwork. So, how do these parents ensure their children, deprived of social interaction that schools provide, learn these skills?
Sharma said his son goes to play hockey and learn guitar. These activity classes are where he gets to interact with other children.
Parents who have never enrolled their children in school say that co-curricular activities are the best way to learn skills that they would otherwise miss out on. In fact, some parents give a lot of importance to what their children want to learn.
Pallavi Lotlikar from Pune said her family keeps moving from one place to another every few years, “so that our children have more exposure to different cultures”.
“We came to Jaipur from Pune, to facilitate change for our children. Here, my daughter started learning tennis, so we are staying a bit longer so that she can finish her lessons…We enjoy this freedom that comes with unschooling our children and they enjoy that too.”
Lotlikar, a vastu consultant, and her husband, who took early retirement, have been unschooling their kids, a 13-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, for nine years now.
Letting children study at their own pace makes them confident and capable of making their own decisions, she said.
“We teach our children how to handle their own finances. We give them a certain amount of pocket money and let them use it on their own. They started saving money from a very young age,” she added.
Allowing students to ‘think on their own’
Vivek Dutta, a researcher in the field of education at Delhi University, said homeschooling as an idea only works if implemented properly.
“I think many parents nowadays want to homeschool their kids but aren’t able to because of a lack of time,” he added. “Schools have a set way of teaching children and don’t really allow them to think on their own, and that is where homeschooling or unschooling tries to break the barrier.”
The flip-side, however, is that “we don’t really know how these children will turn out to be once they go to college where they have to attend classes”, he said. “We don’t have enough data or case studies to study that,” Dutta added.
Lina Ashar, founder of Dreamtime Learning School, an online school for children from pre-primary to middle level, said in an email that “homeschooling has several benefits, including personalised education, flexible scheduling, and more control over children’s learning”.
“Additionally, the central government has recently announced a new policy emphasising the importance of individualised learning and flexible education, which may further boost the trend of homeschooling in the country,” she added.
“Children may miss out on some of the social benefits of attending school. However, homeschooling provides unique socialisation opportunities, such as participating in homeschooling groups or extracurricular activities,” she said.
“Technology can (also) help connect homeschooling students with peers from around the world, offering opportunities for social interaction and collaboration.”
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)
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