Why parents who did well in S'pore's education system are homeschooling their children now

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Tanya Ong | January 16, 2021, 04:55 PM

PERSPECTIVE: For the past five years, 13-year-old Luqman Hakim and his 10-year-old sister Sumayyah have been part of Singapore's homeschooling community.

People choose to homeschool their kids for a variety of reasons. In order to get a glimpse into the homeschooling life, we spoke to a family who has been homeschooling their children since 2015.

Before quitting her job to take care of her children full-time, Kalsum Harun was working as a civil servant. Her husband, Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir, is currently an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.

They have three children, aged 13, 10 and three.

Speaking to Mothership, Kalsum and Kamaludeen tell us about why they decided to take homeschool their children, despite the risks and uncertainties involved in the path less travelled.

As told to Tanya Ong

Your eldest son has currently been homeschooled for the past five years (since 2015), and so has your daughter. Why did you decide to homeschool your kids?

Kalsum: For my eldest son, I homeschooled him since Primary 1. He was diagnosed with ADHD in preschool, but that wasn't the reason we homeschooled, even though for some people special needs is the reason that they [do].

At first, it was really an extension of parenting. I've always wanted my children to be close to me, and I want to see them grow up.

We were already bought into the idea of homeschooling, plus we thought that, oh since he has special needs, then all the more it might be a better environment for him.

We also have other motivations, such as my husband needing to travel a lot for work and us not wanting to disrupt their schooling. We also don't believe in spending such a long time away from each other, as a family.

Photos from their travels. Not postcards. Photo by Tanya Ong.

What does a day in the homeschooled life look like?

Kalsum: We have a timetable built around mealtimes, rest times, and prayer times.

After waking up at around 8am, the children start the day doing chores  my son has to clean up and vacuum the outside area, while my daughter has to clean up her room, her grandparents' and her aunt's room.

They will start their work after breakfast, which may involve lessons for a few hours. We then stop for lunch, and then continue for a few more hours in the afternoon.

In the evening, I give them time to just do whatever they want, because I think it's important for them to also play and have outdoor time. Sometimes my son goes out to jog.

After dinner, we'll have a short lesson, and then after that it's reading time.

Sitting area. Photo by Tanya Ong.

Kamaludeen: This is the irony of homeschooling. We'd like to think that it's more laid-back and more fluid. But it actually takes more planning and thinking about how we can fill up each timeslot with something productive!

Do you teach all the subjects yourself or do you have external teachers? Do you have a teaching background yourself?

Kalsum: Yeah, at first I didn't think that I would have the ability to homeschool. Both my sisters are actually teachers — one in primary school and one in secondary school. But I don't have a teaching background. I was a civil servant at a ministry before I left to be a full-time housewife.

MOE's requirement, especially for primary school level, is that we have to do most of the teaching ourselves. We can get enrichment teachers, but we can't outsource the teaching completely.

Some of the other mothers — especially the veteran mothers — have gained the confidence to conduct classes.

There are two types of classes by mums. Some of them are co-operatives, [also known as] co-ops. If it is a cooperative, we all take turns teaching, so usually there's no fees. There might be a fund to buy teaching materials, but that's about it.

Sometimes, mothers who are particularly knowledgeable in a certain subject might conduct a class out of a rented venue. In these cases, it's only fair for us to pay them. After all, these mothers were also professionals before they left work and I think their time should also be compensated for.

Kamaludeen: I believe that the parents shouldn’t be the only ones teaching their kids. It's not beneficial at all for the development of the kid -- emotionally or intellectually.

Other people should also be involved to educate the kids. It takes an entire village to raise a child.

And do they also go for tuition classes?

Kalsum: For now, I have like two tutors who come to my home for Malay. As a language, I think you also you need someone who can speak to them and I feel sometimes I need someone else to talk to them.

Given compulsory primary education in Singapore, are there any special tests your kids have to sit for, or how do you account for their progress?

In terms of the compulsory education, the PSLE is the only thing that they have to do.

But when they are in Primary 4, the Ministry of Education's requirement is that they have to sit for the entire year's syllabus in September. Basically, examinations in English, Math, Science and Malay. We are told that the purpose of the examination is for benchmarking.

They can continue homeschooling even if they fail this Primary 4 exam. But for PSLE, they have to retake the exam (up to three times) until they pass.

[This passing benchmark] is a bit higher than the benchmark for the Express stream for school-going kids.

(Editor's note: According to Singapore Homeschooling, the benchmarks for homeschoolers are pegged at the 33rd percentile of the aggregate score achieved by all merged-stream pupils who take the PSLE that year.)

Does this mean that apart from these national exams or tests, your kids don't sit for any other exams?

Kalsum: The difficulty with giving school test papers is that the order in which things are taught in school is very different.

Compulsory education covers from Primary 1 to Primary 6, until they sit for PSLE. If he’s preparing for the O-levels, maybe [we might prepare him using] the Ten Year Series?

At the end of the day, he must be able to sit for those papers. But we’ll see how it goes.

Kamaludeen: When we were preparing our kid for PSLE, we felt that we were just going through the hoops to prepare him.

The kneejerk reaction of Singaporeans is just to clear the next big thing, right? For the PSLE, one might need a certain score to reach a certain stage, so learning might become a means to an end.

But we are not tiger parents who insist that they have to get a certain score in a subject. For now, we just let them explore.

When you explain to them that there are different fields that they can be interested in, they can make more mindful choices (as to what to pursue) instead of doing it just because it’s an easier path.

Both of you came from typically 'successful' education backgrounds. Surely it was a risk to give up that familiar system that worked so well for you, and homeschool your kids?

Kamaludeen: That’s what everybody says! “You’ve done so well in the school system, so why???”

We know the Singaporean education system. And having gone through the education system, we know not only its merits, but also its limitations and how it works for certain kinds of people.

I feel some people fall through the cracks.

Looking at our kids, we feel that we are in a position to customise their education. We are able to indulge them a bit and not have their entire day revolve around a few textbooks. They need to be able to read widely and explore. These are the things that I feel are important to the development of a kid.

Easily-accessible bookshelves. Photo by Tanya Ong.

Kalsum: I think homeschooling fits better in terms of how I feel that knowledge should be taught also.

If our children were to go to school, they have to cover the topics in a certain way and [we] would have to go by the school's pace. If my child doesn't understand, or he or she prefers to learn more about something and dwell in this topic longer, they're not able to do that, because they're constantly trying to keep up.

How do you go about planning your children's curriculum?

Kamaludeen: There’s a lot of research that goes into it because there are a lot of curriculums out there.

Kalsum: Post-PSLE, we're doing the O-level syllabus [for Luqman] because he's interested in doing psychology, possibly as a polytechnic diploma eventually. But we'll see how it goes!

The curriculum we choose depends on the institutions they want to apply [to] eventually. But we also let them explore their interests.

There's always something every day. It could be languages or different subjects like ancient civilisations or math.

For example, my daughter has French co-op. And my son is not interested in doing French, so he will do something else to explore his interests. He has done several online courses on Coursera, like psychology modules.

We also learn with our children, and give them resources for the subjects we [aren't good in].

And I think, in a way, we're also modelling this spirit of learning for our children. That you don't always have to be perfect before you can teach others. Everything is always a work in progress.

Photo by Tanya Ong.

To Luqman: What's your favourite subject?

Luqman: In the curriculum, English. I like it because I find it easier. I like doing compositions. And what subject do you dislike the most? Right now, secondary school maths is easier than I thought it would be [but] the more intimidating one is science.

Some people have the impression that kids who are homeschooled are lacking in social skills. What would you say to these people?

Kalsum: Well, we have our co-ops. Our kids also go for various sports classes.

For instance, my son was taking up ActiveSG basketball classes, and he was with this Kaki Bukit soccer school for a bit. Both my son and daughter are also now in taekwondo class.

So there's a lot of things they're involved in. In fact, I think they are plugged into more social circles because we are not curbed by these rigid hours that they have to have blocked out.

Do homeschooled kids have the same school holiday period as schoolgoers?

Kalsum: We kind of homeschool all year round. Because we also go out on school days, so we have to compensate somehow...

Kamaludeen: That’s the good part of homeschooling. We get to go to places where there are no crowds, either on off peak seasons or off peak hours!

Kalsum: ... I have to consider whether I'm covering the syllabus enough.

But throughout the year there’s also downtime, for example during fasting months or festive periods.

The school holidays is actually an opportunity for our kids to meet up with their very good friends who go to school. So we also try to make time for that.

Have your kids ever told you that they wished they could go to school instead?

Kalsum: So far, the kids really like it. Like, every year, we will ask them whether they want to be sent back to school. In fact, I use it as a threat. *laughing*

Kamaludeen: Every time we ask if they want to go back to school, we'll get a resounding 'no' from them. They know that they have it good.

(To Luqman) What do you like about homeschooling?

Luqman: I think homeschoolers have more flexibility. And they can learn at their own pace. They get more attention from their teacher. Because of my special needs I learn differently. And I take a longer time to absorb things. So to me flexibility is very important.

And have you ever felt like they’re missing out since you're doing something different from the norm?

Luqman: I know that my lifestyle is different but I've never really wanted to be a regular teenager anyway. Why not? When I asked them (schooling friends) about school, they mostly just complain. They always talk about the negatives.

Also, they mention things like having too much tuition.

Are any of your friends jealous of you and wish they were homeschooled? Ah, yeah! They tell you that? *nods*. It’s not for everybody.

Photo by Tanya Ong.

What are some considerations for homeschooling and why do you think it may not be for everyone?

Kamaludeen: We understand that not everybody can do this. The first thing I think we have to acknowledge [is that] we are privileged enough to do it. We are both graduates (you need to be a graduate to homeschool your kids in Singapore), and the other thing is that we can get [by] with a single-income.

A lot of things must click and align before you can decide to homeschool your children.

As a family, we had to ask: What is it that we prioritise? If what we value is more time with the kids, flexibility in terms of mobility and movement, a customised education, then I think it makes our choice [to homeschool] clearer.

Kalsum: We don't think that it is for everybody. Even for us, it's like we can definitely do better! There’s a lot of room for improvement.

We wouldn't say it's easier than sending our kids to school. But we also feel that, for the things that we were concerned about, these would not be necessarily resolved by sending our children to school.

Kamaludeen: You cannot be the kind of parent that is very uptight about keeping up with the Joneses and getting A stars and good grades.

If you are, I think you will be very, very frustrated. If you feel that your kid needs to get A stars, then you're not homeschooling, you’re schooling your kid at home.

Some quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar.

Top photo by Tanya Ong.