While many parents grapple with the question of whether to send their children to public or private schools, a tiny number of parents elect not to send them anywhere. These are Barcelona’s homeschoolers, a small and—until recently—secretive community of parents who have taken the reins of their children’s education into their own hands.
Anna Ferrer is mother to 15 children, all of them educated at home. She is also one of the founders of Educar en Familia, the first Catalan homeschooling organisation. “Homeschooling is an alternative to school, a different option. It’s a response to a dissatisfaction with the school system as it is. I’m not against school, I recognise it has helped millions of children around the world. But I feel that school mashes everything up, it’s a machine that tries to make everything the same—parents, teachers and children.”
Esther Pérez, also a member of Educar en Familia and a mother of three, explained why some families opt not to send their children to school: “The reasons are as different as families are different. It’s not just those with problems at school, but families who want to teach things that aren’t in the curriculum (such as specific moral or religious values), children who have been bullied, children from other cultures, adopted children who need special teaching or even kids who are too advanced for what school is teaching them. There are also many ‘normal’ kids whose parents simply want to take care of their education.”
Homeschooling is currently a grey area under Spanish law; it is not recognised as an option and therefore not regulated. Since 2002, the official line has been that each region must regulate homeschooling in its own way. For Catalunya, this means that families who are part of the association Educar En Familia are allowed to educate at home. In other parts of Spain this is not so, and many families have been taken to court.
Fear of prosecution was even more of a problem 30 years ago, when Anna Ferrer started to educate her children at home. “We were isolated, in fear of being taken to court. I couldn’t leave the house with the kids in school hours—we were always asked what school they went to by people in the street. We couldn’t even do extra-curricular activities as they always asked for proof of what school the children were at.”
Even taking great care to keep her secret, after 20 years of homeschooling Ferrer’s family was reported to social services, and after a court hearing the children were sent to school. “It was really hard for the kids,” she said. “They had been educated in a completely different way, without aggression. They were good mediators and also advanced for the class, so they got pretty bored. After six years I couldn’t stand it anymore, I saw how my younger children were different from my older ones, and as a mother that really hurt. For that reason I took them out of school again.”
This situation is in stark contrast with the UK, where homeschooling has always been legal, and where a homeschoolers’ association estimates that some 50,000 children are being educated at home. Other countries where homeschooling is prevalent and legal include the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, the Ukraine and France.
There are about 100 families in Catalunya that homeschool, according to Ferrer, but the number may be higher as many families are secretive about it. At the moment, Educar en Familia is pushing for a change in the law here. “We are talking to the Catalan Parliament and trying to make them recognise our rights in the new education bill [Llei d’Educació] they want to pass this year. We are also trying to make a census of homeschooling families so that they differentiate us from truant families.”
When educating at home is discussed, an inevitable question is whether children suffer socially. “Many people think socialising is something that is left out of the equation with homeschooling, but this is not true,” said Ximena Amador, a mother of two. “We meet several times per week with other families, the children go to music lessons and circus classes, we also meet monthly in the Ciutadella Park. They get to play a lot.
“It’s true that they don’t meet every day in a classroom with just children of their own age, but they get to meet and play with all different ages, races and types of people. They have very little prejudice, boys and girls play together, they learn to relate equally. They become less self-conscious. I think it’s a good lesson in having diverse friendships.”
Amador is part of an informal group of home educators called Aprender y Vivir. They meet on the first Friday of every month in the Ludoteca in the Ciutadella Park, from 11am-6pm. “It’s a chance to have a really good day out and exchange with other parents. We have no other agenda, it’s just a support group.”
No specific training is needed to be able to teach your children, and each family has a different ‘curriculum’: some follow the school curriculum, some create their own classes and timetable, and some let their children lead the learning. Esther Pérez said she and her family mostly work by the ‘project’ method, where the children become interested in a subject and then work on it intensely. This can work really nicely, she said, when children from different families decide to collaborate.
She explained a project her son and another child had done on horses; they interviewed horse-handlers, asked about costs and feed, calculated sums, watched films and wrote stories and poems about horses. “They learn much more this way because of the flexibility, they learn from a natural curiosity and love of learning. No forcing is required, learning becomes a pleasure. The kids don’t get as bored at home, at school many hours are wasted being bored. They learn more in less time.”
Educating children at home takes a big financial and social commitment, yet those who choose to do it say their efforts are well-rewarded. Whether children will be handicapped in the long run by missing the standard years of education among their peers, as some people believe, remains to be seen. And, of course, many parents cannot afford to dedicate so much time to their children’s education, because they are too busy earning a living for themselves and those same children.
One thing’s for certain: those who choose to homeschool are finding more and more resources to help them in Catalunya.
Catalunya’s first homeschooling organisation: www.educarenfamilia.org
ALE Spain’s national homeschooling association: www.educacionlibre.org
Spanish website to aid families that homeschool: www.crecersinescuela.org
American site about legal aspects of homeschooling: www.hslda.org
British homeschooling website: www.home-education.org.uk