Lying about Learning: Homeschooling in Ireland

“Politics mean nothing to me. I don’t like people who are indifferent to the truth.”

— Boris Pasternak, “Doctor Zhivago”

DISCLAIMER: This is targeted at Irish readers. If you don’t understand the references to specific institutions, please google them, or read something else.

i.

I didn’t sit in a classroom until I was 18, when I took a photography course at my local college. For thirteen years, when others my age were in primary and secondary school, I was homeschooled. Many homeschooled kids eventually go to school, perhaps in preparation for their exams, but I did not, sitting the Leaving Certificate as an external candidate at a nearby school.

Your impression about homeschooled people may be a little skewed. Stories about Irish homeschoolees are often lacklustre or poorly expressed. You may believe that homeschooling is something done by kooks, which produces strange people with insufficient skills to function in the world. Let me offer you a snippet of my biography, in order to make a point. I completed my Leaving Certificate, applied through the CAO, and obtained a place in UCD to study English and History. After a year out to study photography, I went to UCD and eventually graduated top of my class. I received an offer from Oxford to study my master’s in history there, but chose Trinity, as they offered me a bursary. I currently work for UCD as a tutor in the School of History.

I realise that this litany comes across as self-aggrandising and narcissistic, but I am trying to make one thing clear: homeschooling can have effective results.

ii.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed many of the hypocrisies that lurk in the unnamed recesses of our societies. Care for the vulnerable, the ability of the state to mobilise resources to ensure that everyone is taken care of, and so on. The hypocrisy that I would like to discuss, however, relates to something more obscure: homeschooling.

The schools in Ireland and elsewhere are now closed, and parents have been forced to take on their role of primary educator with a little more conviction and dedication than many may previously have done. This is, of course, demanding, especially for those still working from home. Resources have been made available to facilitate this effort. Many schools are providing distance classes. Schoolbook companies have made their material accessible online. Newspapers are posting articles about the challenges of dealing with your children in this new capacity. RTE, in an amazing twist, is providing an hour of school on TV every morning, for primary school students. At the moment, homeschooling is a challenging but well-supported endeavour.

My experience of the relationship between the education system and the homeschooled student was a little less rosy. To homeschool your child in Ireland, you have to register with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. This government entity, according to its website, is “the dedicated State agency responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children”. Its creation represented the “most comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland”. Tusla, then, is a child welfare agency, the sort of body that deals with domestic abuse, child protection, and adoption. It is difficult to see why homeschooling, a matter of teaching and learning, is under their jurisdiction. Formerly, homeschoolers would register with NEWB, the National Educational Welfare Board, but following the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, this was amalgamated into Tusla. Why, then, is a matter of education under the aegis of a body concerned with matters of welfare? The answer could well be found in the enthusiasm of Irish governments for constantly shuffling its public bodies as a distraction from its inability to formulate progressive public policy. Still, the administrative arrangement is suggestive of how homeschooling is perceived at the highest levels of Irish institutions.

Now, when you sit the Leaving Certificate, most subjects are assessed entirely by a written examination. Some, however, include a project work component. Three of my subjects, when I took the examinations in 2014, required a project. I completed these and submitted them. However, due to my being homeschooled, no teacher could sign off that these projects were my own work, unplagiarised and original. Consequently, my projects were marked, but were not included in my final results. Each of these was worth 20% of my final grade: a significant portion.

My parents and I appealed to the State Examinations Commission, stating our case and insisting that the projects had, of course, been completed fairly and without plagiarism. An exchange of letters ensued. in which we encountered unyielding institutional resistance. The officials with whom we spoke did not question that I had completed the projects myself. Actually, they did not care. As I had not completed the projects under the supervision of a teacher in a school, they were unauthenticated, and so could not be accepted for grading purposes. In the event, the exclusion of these components from my Leaving Certificate resulted in a loss of 60 points from my final result, so that I had 460 on paper, instead of 520.

To even obtain the marks was a struggle. We had to submit a data access request under the Data Protection Act, which took a few months to be processed and returned. Now, looking online, I can find no evidence that any provisions have been made in the Leaving Certificate system to make up for this shortfall, no indication that any accommodations have been made for homeschooled students within the mainstream educative structure.

Articles 41 and 42 of the Irish Constitution enshrine the right of families to homeschool their children:

42.1: The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

42.2: Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State.

That is all straightforward, and indeed the Irish State has respected these articles (more or less). Here are two other points:

42.3: The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.

41.2 The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

These sentences are open to interpretation, but I would argue that they can be understood to mean that the State should be available to facilitate the family (within reason) in the endeavour of education, whether at home or at a school. Surely this would include being accorded equal opportunities within the examination system. Surely this would mean providing homeschooled children with facilities to ensure that they can participate, on equal terms, with other students in the Leaving Certificate, an exam that determines college prospects, at least for a few years.

This argument is open to debate. Let me provide something more clear-cut. The definition of a successful examination system is that all those it tests are treated equally and have equal chance of success, at least insofar as that the assessment criteria are the same for all. In that context, the exclusion of my project material as a consequence of my being homeschooled undermines the Leaving Certificate examination process on a structural level.

Clearly, then, until very recently, the homeschooled in Ireland have been disregarded, as though their absence from an official classroom disqualifies them from involvement in the overall system.

iii.

It must be said that the suspicion toward homeschooling in Ireland is not merely an institutional concern. I recall quite clearly my upbringing, when family, friends, and random strangers viewed my education with prejudice and wariness, as though I were being drawn into some sort of cult, when in practice I was doing quite similar work to most people my age, albeit in a different setting and with more self-direction. My later academic successes were unexpected but welcome, not least because they validated my parents’ decisions and demonstrated that the method was not merely the delusion of crackpots. Still, you have only to look online to see evidence of the biased views held toward homeschooling and all who practice it.

Perhaps one of the more frustrating indications of the marginalisation of homeschooling is that even its name has been appropriated. An online grinds school has been established in recent years, offering affordable lessons and materials through its website, which can be found at homeschool.ie. When I first saw the website on Google, my first thought was that some sort of new support had been established for homeschoolers in Ireland. It was disappointing, then, to find that the name is merely being used for a moneymaking operation that supplements mainstream education. A stunning appropriation, that suggests two possibilities: homeschooling is so marginal in this country that most people do not even see it, or it is considered to be so subversive that it would be better if it were erased.

(I would like here to draw a distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. The former is a distinct method, widely variable but identifiable by a key characteristic: the transference of the school environment to the home environment, with many accompanying routines and subjects. The latter is something more nebulous, with uncertain connotations. The two are often conflated, and I’m sure that both can be positive or negative in different hands, but the difference is important.)

And now, seemingly overnight, any question marks over the concept of homeschooling in Ireland have vanished. Now, I am not naive: I realise that this is the product of our unprecedented global crisis, which has compelled states everywhere to enact previously unthinkable measures to ensure some measure of normal activity. Yet it is no less galling to find the wary treatment of homeschooling overturned in a second, as soon as the middle classes of this country find themselves in the difficult situation of being responsible for their children all the time.

When an opinion is discarded in an instant, its emptiness is evident.

iv.

The Irish political establishment has, in recent years, prided itself on its liberalism on social matters. Legalisation of gay marriage, abortion, the disintegration of the bonds between church and state, and so on. In the space of about 35 years, Ireland has apparently been transformed from a quasi-theocracy to one of the darlings of liberal Europe. Are we not fantastic? Are we not so progressive?

Not at all.

The truth is, I would argue, not that politicians in this country are so progressive. Instead, they are attempting to manage the pressures imposed by the electoral system. Our proportional representation ensures that there is a very close connection between the TDs in the Dail and the voters on the street. This imposes a level of responsiveness on both parties. Most politicians, of course, base their careers on maintaining the status quo, in material matters, as much as possible. In recent years, they have maintained their position by offering social reforms that give the impression of progress, but in practice, do not alter the significant inequalities that characterise the society.

The lack of accommodation for homeschooled students is a minor indication of this. It reflects an inattention for any matters that are too small to be of relevance at the ballot box, and it reflects a suspicion for any practices that exist independently of the tedious mainstream.

This moribund political culture has its more obvious signs in matters such as the housing crisis, or the lack of investment in the health system, a failing that is now coming home to roost in tragic, grisly fashion. Liberalism in Ireland is a composite of appearances and delusions, a fiction maintained so that those in the parliament can pretend to care about the people outside, and so that those on the street can feel satisfied they have made a difference. In fact, almost nothing is done in this country unless it benefits an interest group: the D4 crowd, the farmers, the developers, or the foreign hedge funds and corporations.

We find ourselves in a mineshaft of hypocrisy, and the homeschooled are just one of the many canaries.

English, history, and other things. My first novel THE LAST WORLD is available on Amazon.

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