No ordinary first day of school

Matshidiso Madia Matshidiso Madia

It's day one of the 2013 academic year in inland provinces, and millions of children have just started their schooling careers. In a country where tens of thousands of pupils fall through the cracks of the public schooling system and families are practically choking from the high costs of private education, it’s parents like Craig and Lee-Anne Smee who dig deep within themselves to find an alternative - one that’s slowly becoming an option for many parents in South Africa.

Here’s what they did:

Their home, characterised by a luscious green garden, a sparkling pool, beautifully groomed pets and lots and lots of toys has now become a place of learning. It’s the Smees' garden cottage that sets the scene of a classroom for their three children, Kevin, Bianca and Kyle. They took a decision three years ago to pull their children out of private school and to teach them from home.

 “Their fees were costing more than the mortgage for our house!” says 37-year-old Lee-Anne, who went from stay-at-home-mom to teacher.

Although it has been a relatively smooth transition for the mom of three, who has always been involved in helping her children with their homework and other school-related activities, she does admit to having found the idea daunting at first. She also had to do a lot of reading up on the concept of home schooling and to figure out which curriculum would work best for her children.

A few years later and her children are on holiday. Laughter can be heard coming from the lounge, as the children take turns on the Xbox with a friend who’s spending an afternoon at their house. Lee-Anne’s comfortable in her different roles as her children’s teacher and mother.

Asked if she plans on continuing with her children’s education until they reach matric she says, “We’ll see. For now we take it one year at a time.”

The biggest challenge for the Smees is making sure their children don’t become socially inept. To achieve this, money saved from not attending traditional schools has come in handy. In this family, extramural activities form a big part of everyday life: From piano and guitar lessons, to dancing and judo. The children also take Zulu classes and their boys are eagerly waiting for their chance to start fencing lessons. Their parents have also ensured that they maintain relationships they built when they attended school. A lot of sleep-overs and play-dates are routine for this family.

What do the children say:

The eldest of the three, Kevin who turns 12 this year, has spent the most time in a school environment and says he’s happier attending lessons at home. “I love the fact that I don’t have to wait for attention or assistance with my work from a teacher who might still be busy with many other children.” A sports enthusiast and probably one of the biggest Stormers rugby team fans in the country; he explains that the relaxed nature of home schooling makes it easy for him to catch up on the work he’s lost.

11-year-old Bianca describes the opportunity to receive her education from home as a relief. She speaks of bullies and boys making it difficult for her to enjoy traditional schooling. This eloquent young lady says it gets a little odd sharing a class with her brothers when she’s writing a test as her younger brother often interrupts her with questions.

Incredibly energetic seven-year-old Kyle is not so keen to chat to the media, although he likes the fact that school is just a short walk across the yard. Having experienced the least amount of time in a classroom, he seems only to remember the playground. That’s all he longs for, playing and interacting with other children on school playgrounds.

Even though the Smees might not know when their homeschooling venture will come to an end, judging from how well adjusted their children seem around strangers and their interaction with other children, one can’t help but feel that they have made a good choice by opting to educate their children the uncommon way.

What does the state say:

According to Moses Simelani from the Department of Basic Education, home schooling is as much a phenomenon in South Africa as it is in the rest of the world.

In 1999, the government set up policies to cater for children not attending traditional schools, but with more learners being pulled out of primary and secondary institutions, they’re now battling a series of shortcomings. Simelani says ideally parents should have maximum support from their provincial educational departments, and hopefully, once policies have been finalised this year, that will be the case in 2014.

Simelani still encourages parents who wish to explore educating their children from home to go their respective departments to get set up, be introduced curriculum options that match those of the departments and be introduced to local home schooling associations.

When asked how South Africa measures against other countries, he says, “It’s difficult to measure. The struggle is gathering data on something not regulated. Not every country regulates home schooling. We have a lot of work to do before we can truly compare SA to the rest of the globe.”