BRENDAN and Breda Conroy sent their first three children to a local primary school, but began considering home education when it became apparent that their eldest son Ben, was not happy in school.
“Academically he was ahead of what was going on in the classroom, but his writing skills were poor and this was causing him a lot of frustration,” says Brendan.
After a lot of “agonising” the couple, from Dundrum in Dublin, made the decision to homeschool Ben when he was in fourth class.
“Within two weeks I knew I should have done it years previously,” says the father of four, who had left his job in banking to look after the children.
“Everything we were doing we could do at the pace that was appropriate to him.” The following year their two daughters jumped at the option of being homeschooled.
The deal was they could always go back to school if they did not like it.
“In terms of a curriculum it was, ‘let’s investigate the world’,” says Brendan. “Rather than try to cover vast swathes of say, history, we would pick a particular period and stick with it for quite a long time and we would use young adult novels, resources on the internet, BBC educational programmes etc…
“I’d try and make sure they got some sense of their native language, history, geography, maths, science etc... I’d be trying to cover lots of different bases,” he says.
Fast forward more than 10 years and Ben (22) is now in his first Year at Oxford studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) and Robyn (18) has started a four year degree course in animation at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT).
“Ben was very happy with homeschooling up to a certain point and then he decided to do A levels because he could do a smaller number of subjects (than in the Leaving Cert) in more depth,” says Brendan who is currently home-educating Eva (17) and their youngest Matthias (15), who has never gone to school.
“He did that through the Dublin Tutorial Centre, over two-and-a-half years. Oxford was never on anyone’s agenda. He just did very well at the exams. He got As in the four A levels, including A stars.” He’s just home from his first term, he’s getting on well and he’s made good friends.”
Robyn, who loved drawing from an early age, went straight from homeschooling to do a FETAC Level 5 course in Art at Stillorgan College of Further Education, after which she was accepted onto the IADT course.
“The one thing I would say about the whole experience is that (it shows) that there are lots of different ways that people can get to where they want to go,” says Brendan.
According to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, there are currently some 1,070 children and young people who are registered as being educated in places other than schools, including those being educated at home.
Children who are home schooled must be registered with Tusla and Tusla assesses that the education provided is of a level to satisfy ‘minimum standard’.
NO JUDGEMENT ON LEARNING
Brendan Donegan (33) a software engineer who was homeschooled by his mother Jane, along with his five siblings, until the age of 16, believes that one of the main benefits of homeschooling is there is no, “judgement on how you are learning something”.
“In school, if somebody doesn’t get off on the right foot with a particular subject then they might think they are not ‘good’ at that, whereas with homeschooling the focus is on whether you like it or not. If you don’t like it you don’t do it. If you practice something enough you build up the aptitude for it,” says the father of two who grew up near Carndonagh, Co Donegal, and who now lives in Bath, England, with his wife Afroze, their daughter Amna (6) and their son Rayhan (3).
“We did basic lessons in reading, writing and Maths during the early years, but were allowed to follow our own interests after that. I had a strong interest in computers, as well as history,” says Brendan.
Brendan also followed a different path to the traditional ‘Leaving Cert” route to access third level education.
He attended a higher education college in Derry to take his GCSEs and afterwards completed a national diploma in computing at the same college.
“The main thing I had to get used to was doing exams. It was a bit of a shock, but I still got the grades that I needed,” says Brendan of his first experience of mainstream education.
His diploma results secured him an offer to study computer science at the Ulster University in Derry.
“I got my bachelor degree and my masters degree at UCC with highest honours. I think being home-educated put me at an advantage in third-level as I had a more flexible model of learning than many of my peers who seemed to be held back by their experiences of how they ‘should’ be taught.”
The father of two’s positive experience of homeschooling is a factor in he and his wife’s decision to home-educate Amna. “There is very good support here. There are quite a lot home-educating families in the area unlike in Donegal in the 1980s!”
GETTING THE POINTS
Meanwhile, Lily Brodie-Hayes (16), from Barntown, outside Wexford, started mainstream school this year in order to sit her Leaving Cert because, rather than specialising in one particular area, she wanted to give herself more options when it came to deciding on a career path.
Now a fifth year pupil at Presentation Secondary School Wexford, up to this September Lily, who is the eldest of four, had been educated at home, mostly by her mother Vivian.
“Last year I was starting to think about college and what I wanted to do and it was all about the points. I just started thinking should I do it. The Leaving Cert is the most direct way of getting points to go to college. In the end it seemed the best decision to make. Although we could have done it here at home, it was a lot of pressure to put on my parents because they would have had to get up to date with the curriculum.
“I was (initially) going to do a course in music performance …but the only third level course that I would have been able to do was music performance so it felt quite restricting in a way,” said Lily, who has played both the violin and the piano since the age of five.
“I felt I should give myself other options and not just narrow it all down so quickly,” said the 16-year-old who thinks she would like to study something to do with music and languages after school.
She said that starting school had been a “big change” but that it had gotten easier.
“I was very worried about the social side of things, but that turned out to be fine so it’s just kind of getting used to the homework and the classes and the exams and the deadlines. We never did any of that.
“I’m only realising now (with homeschooling) how much freedom and time I had to do what it was I wanted to do,” says Lily. “I would have done a lot of theatre and drama and would have travelled to Dublin and done workshops and things.
“I was quite a bookworm so I did a lot of reading. That’s the thing about homeschooling — you have a lot more time to give to the subjects that you are interested in.”