When Ayla Staer was 15 months old, she grabbed a book and started reciting the numbers in it up to 10.
- Around 20,000 students in Australia are registered for homeschooling
- Ayla Staer’s mother decided to try it after school proved “really difficult”
- Researchers say schools are failing children “different to their peers”
Within weeks, she was counting up to 100, then learning to skip count, add and subtract.
After mastering the basics of maths she moved on to the alphabet and was quickly spelling words.
All of a sudden, at around two years of age, Ayla was reading fluently.
Navigating mainstream schooling was always going to be tricky for a child who had learnt most of the Year One curriculum by the age of three, but whose emotional and motor skills were not in sync.
Nonetheless, she began kindergarten with her peers.
Meltdowns and struggles as ‘things deteriorated fast’
Her mother, Danielle Staer, said that was when things went off the rails, with Ayla experiencing “long and intense” meltdowns.
“We tried several schools in the early years,” she said.
“The experience was really difficult, it really impacted her wellbeing in a very short period of time.
“In one school, I would get called every day to pick her up early because she would not calm down there after a meltdown.
“In another, she would sob at home every day, saying she didn’t want to go to school anymore because she was lonely.
“She wanted to be around older children and be in a class where she was learning something new, but because of her struggles regulating her emotions and her reluctance to participate in the activities in her grade level, no-one would even consider it.
“It just became a vicious cycle and things deteriorated fast.”
Discovering the advantages of homeschooling
After trying three schools and watching her daughter in decline, Ms Staer — an HR business partner in Perth — decided to give homeschooling a go.
She said the academic and social experiences she could provide at home for Ayla, now aged six, far outweighed what she could get at school.
“It takes time to coordinate everything and find the right resources, but it’s not hard,” she said.
“If something is not working at home or if she has mastered concepts faster than I expected, I don’t have to convince anybody we need to make a change or skip curriculum, I can just do it.
“There are always exceptions but the majority of schools don’t cater well to children with huge differences in abilities or disabilities.”
Home education on the rise across Australia
Ms Staer works four days a week and homeschools Ayla the other three, while also caring for her three-year-old son Ezra.
She said she would not be able to do it without the support of her mother and mother-in-law, who each have the children two days a week, ferrying them to various activities and appointments and working through the material she has left them.
The Staers’ experience is far from unique.
The number of children being home educated in Australia has increased in every state and territory in recent years.
Across the country, there are now about 20,000 students registered for homeschooling.
In Western Australia, 3,720 students were registered for home education as of March 2019, representing 0.87 per cent of the total student population.
It is the fastest growing of all education sectors, prompting Edith Cowan University education researcher Eileen Slater to find out why.
Schools failing children ‘different to their peers’
In a recent survey of 385 home education families, representing 676 children, Dr Slater found the majority were doing so because of a developmental difference with their child or children that schools were not able to accommodate.
That included giftedness, mental health or neurodevelopmental differences such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and impairment in vision and hearing.
Only 19 per cent were being homeschooled for lifestyle reasons.
In Dr Slater’s sample study, 57 per cent of children had tried mainstream schooling but it did not work out.
“It is reasonable to conclude from this research that home education is on the rise in Australia due to mainstream education, its structures and resources, failing to accommodate the needs of children who are different to their peers in some way,” she said.
“In any classroom across Australia, statistically speaking, a teacher is likely to have at least one child each with ASD, ADHD, a gifted level of intelligence, a specific learning disorder such as dyslexia, a specific motor disorder and a mental health condition such as anxiety.
“Our teachers need society to prioritise education and education funding to support a multidisciplinary approach to ensuring students with a disability can access a quality education on the same basis as their peers.”
No financial help for most homeschooling families
Dr Slater said she was deeply concerned about the number of parents who reported providing specialist reports to schools, outlining how their child’s needs could be met, only to be ignored.
“Far too many parents reported that diagnoses made by qualified professionals were met with open disbelief by school administrators and teachers,” she said.
“I see this as even more evidence that schools need to bring all the stakeholders together, build trust and relationships, and work as a multidisciplinary team for the benefit of students.”
She said 84 per cent of homeschooling families received no financial support, despite their decision saving taxpayers in excess of $10,000 per child, per year.
“It seems socially inequitable to offer no financial support to families meeting the educational needs of their children at home, particularly when they are forgoing work-related income to fulfil the role and many face additional financial burden associated with educating a student with a disability,” Dr Slater said.
“We need to have an open dialogue with our home education community to better understand how to support them, without an increase in regulatory requirements.”
Parents running out of options, advocates say
Home Education WA (HEWA), which offers support for home educators, said the sector was experiencing a period of “rapid growth”.
Committee member Saani Bennetts said there were many reasons why, but developmental differences were uppermost.
“We do believe that schools are finding it difficult to cater for children with differences,” she said.
“We believe that this is a systemic problem, not the fault of individual teachers, most of whom are doing the best they can under often stressful and difficult circumstances.
“Many schools are chronically underfunded and under-resourced, and although I’m sure they’d like to be able to better cater for children with differences, circumstances make it very difficult to do so.”
Ms Bennetts said bullying was another major reason, along with concerns about students’ mental and emotional wellbeing, with many children and teens suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
“They are not removing children from school because of one bad day or a minor upset, but because many children are deeply unhappy, suffering depression, anxiety, health issues and not able to be catered for at school.
“Studies show that leaving children in situations that are distressing or where they are consistently miserable leads to a significantly increased risk of mental and physical health problems in their adult lives.
“For many parents, sending the child to another school would not help solve the problem and for many parents, the decision to home educate comes after they have exhausted every other possible way to resolve problems or help their child first.”
Ms Bennetts said home education was a valid educational choice and many parents made great sacrifices.
“Often the decision is made after much soul-searching and a brave choice to step well beyond their comfort zone to put their child’s wellbeing first, and so uninformed criticisms are hurtful and unnecessary,” she said.
“Respecting others’ parenting and educational choices is always the best approach in life.”