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Traditional school doesn’t suit everyone. Australia needs more flexible options

Schools were thrown into a spin by the COVID-19 pandemic. When children were sent home to learn remotely, teaching methods remained largely the same. Many children, parents and teachers were frustrated by the difficulties they faced when schools tried to transplant face-to-face classroom learning into homes.

Over time, a number of teachers and parents adapted their approach by reducing contact hours and the reliance on lecture-style instruction. Many moved to games and small-group discussion instead. For some students this worked well.

Schools in all states have now reopened and students are required to return to a pre-COVID status quo. But, many cannot or will not, and others feel they are being forced into arrangements they don’t like.

Read more: Homeschooling boomed last year. But these 4 charts show it was on the rise before COVID

The pandemic has changed some parents’ and children’s expectations and experiences of schooling. For instance, many parents saw benefits for their child working at their own pace and being more active.

Research suggests many parents would keep their children in schools if the system was more flexible – even if it allowed the option of attending school part time while learning remotely the rest of the time.

From changed expectations to different choices

While most children in Australia returned to school, a large and growing proportion of families have opted for some kind of at-home learning.

In December 2021, the ACT held an inquiry into the pandemic’s impact on the community. Many parents sent in submissions requesting the state to continue to allow remote learning for those who elected to do so. One of the recommendations on the pandemic’s impact on schools was for the ACT government to

consider the benefits of remote learning for some children and […] whether to introduce this as an ongoing arrangement for those who are better suited to remote learning.

Across the country, home education numbers have increased dramatically. While the exact figures are yet to be released by all state and territory authorities, in NSW, there’s been a reported 28% increase in registrations (from 7032 to 8981) in just ten months. This has been accompanied by a blow-out in the wait-time to be registered, which has more than doubled for some families.

Vivienne Fox (administrator of an online home school registration support page) told us the NSW registration process:

has blown out to at least 16 weeks from submitting the application to receiving the certificate, which is when they say that you’re recognised as registered […] that’s more than one term.

Additionally, private distance education schools have seen a substantial jump in enrolments.

Dr Terry Harding, the manager of Australian Christian College, one of the country’s largest providers of non-government distance education services, told us:

We have four schools in four states. All are experiencing higher than normal enrolments. One has closed new enrolments for term 1 because of the massive influx of new students.

Rise of illegal pop-up schools

Another, more worrying, change has been the emergence of education services that fall into a legal grey area. Teachers who have been forced out of the school system (often for reasons related to COVID vaccination or the disease itself) are moving into the home education sector.

Facebook groups have been set up to connect families with teachers. Some offer tutoring or classes that parents attend with their children. Others have created pop-up schools where parents can drop children to classes and which provide progress reports.

These pop-up schools are not legally or validly operating and are not a non-government school.

To be classed as a non-government school in Australia, schools must be registered by statutory authorities in their state or territory. In Queensland, for example, it’s NSSAB, the Non-State Schools Accreditation Board.

Read more: Thinking of switching to homeschooling permanently after lockdown? Here are 5 things to consider

In all states and territories, these authorities are made up of various representatives of the main non-state school authorities (such as the Catholic Education Commission and independent schools associations). They are convened by education departments to register non-state schools and ensure they are validly operating, including that they are not offering a school service to home educators.

However, these pop-up schools are specifically targeting the home education community and offering a service to them. This is illegal. A spokesperson of the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) told us:

It is an offence for a person to conduct, knowingly permit or assist in the conduct of an unregistered school, for the education of school aged children […] Where NESA has information raising concerns that an illegal school may be operating, NESA will conduct an investigation.

What does this mean going forward?

Schools are now a tricky position. They are trying to balance the needs of fearful parents with the needs of those who think mandates, especially banning parents from school grounds if they are un-vaccinated, have gone too far. They are also dealing with parents’ concerns about children bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members.

Some factors pushing families to homeschool and distance education are already well recognised. These include a child having a diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder, bullying and the family feeling schools are not catering to their children’s needs. We have known for a long time homeschooling is not the first choice for all families.

For many it is a last ditch attempt to meet their children’s learning and well-being needs.

Read more: Don't want to send the kids back to school? Why not try unschooling at home?

Schools may have to adapt to a changed mode to meet parent and students’ needs. Flexible delivery, including opening up the distance education schools for broader enrolments, would support those who benefit from being home some of the time and help those who are concerned about risks associated with school attendance.

More options for distance education would minimise the problem of pop-up schools. And it would leave home education for those who want it, not for those who feel they have no other option.

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