Living abroad is, among other things, an exciting opportunity to expose children to new ideas, languages and cultures. But there are particular challenges that expat families face when it comes to education, and the questions can seem endless: Will my child's studies be interrupted at a crucial time? During what can be a stressful period of extreme change, how can I best minimise disruptions? What schooling options are available in my new country of residence? Are they affordable? Am I likely to have to move again soon? Are there certain qualifications or exams I want to make sure my child takes?
Home education is a sometimes-overlooked option that addresses a number of the unique issues expat families face. Regulations for homeschooling will vary from country to country, and may not even be permitted in some countries, such as Germany. It’s therefore important to first establish what the guidelines are in your country of residence. Country-specific websites and communities can help here, either by providing you with links to government regulations or by helping you connect with parents who are already homeschooling in your country and who may therefore be able to answer questions or point you towards important resources (see below for a list of such organisations).
Pros and cons of homeschooling while abroad
Home education can seem like a daunting prospect – just as daunting as a move abroad, if not more so. But under the right circumstances, it can be extremely rewarding, especially for families who are living in a new country. For parents who are wondering if home education is right for them, it can be helpful to run through some of the pros and cons:
You may be more aware than a new school of your child’s capabilities; homeschooling allows learning to be paced more accurately to match these capabilities
You’ll have more control over the curriculum and teaching methods
Family bonds can be strengthened as you share views and ideas
No travel time is necessary, as learning takes place in the home. The time gained may allow your child to pursue outside hobbies and interests, and to allow you to explore your new surroundings together.
The home environment is often less noisy and tense than the school environment, so you may find your child’s concentration improves at home
It allows much more flexibility than traditional schooling
If you’re likely to be moving around a lot, homeschooling may be a source of stability for your child. It also means he or she can enjoy a smooth, continuous education, wherever you find yourselves.
A big concern for many parents is that they will be ultimately responsible for their child’s education. Working with a distance learning provider is one way of reducing this stress – though it may increase your costs somewhat, a good such institution will share the responsibility with you, providing access to tutors and education experts. You can also utilise online communities for support, and finding other parents nearby who are homeschooling may alleviate some of the pressure you feel.
Your child needs to be comfortable with being schooled at home for it to work effectively – if the thought seems alienating, it’s likely not a good fit.
You’ll need to find ways to provide a social life for your child.
Effective homeschooling requires high levels of concentration and motivation from both children and parents – so you and your child must be committed, disciplined, and comfortable with independence.
The challenges versus the rewards of home education
Home education has many positive aspects, but it does come with its own challenges, which must be considered carefully.
In the three instances outlined below some expats share how the rewards of homeschooling their children while living abroad have been very worthwhile.
Home education plus international school
Ann-Marie and her daughter Krystina, now 13 years old, moved to Germany from the UK four years ago for her husband's work. In Germany all children must attend school, so Krystina is enrolled at the local international school. However, the family knows they’ll be returning to the UK by early 2014, so they are trying to prepare Krystina for another transition. "We were concerned that Krystina would have to join a school in the middle of GCSEs," Ann-Marie explains. So Ann-Marie also enrolled her daughter on two distance-learning IGCSE courses, German and Maths, to make sure she was ready.
"My advice for new expat families is to make the most of the education abroad," says Ann-Marie. "However, I can believe that in some countries, homeschooling may be a preferable option. I imagine some parents are a bit wary of homeschooling, but it’s worth considering, especially if you are concerned about the education available in your area. Children can still easily make friends and socialise, and I know I would rather homeschool than expose my child on a daily basis to an environment I or she was not happy with."
Flexibility in hard times
Maria and her husband left the UK for Dubai in 2007, taking their daughters out of a top girls' school in London. They hoped that the relocation would provide them with a better quality of life, but the crash of 2008 took its toll on Dubai too, and the family struggled through economic recession, trying to pay school fees. Eventually they left Dubai for Doha, but fees there were equally high, and there were long waiting lists. Maria turned to homeschooling, which was much more affordable and allowed her to provide her daughter Lucia with structured days and coursework that would be relevant if the family returned to the UK.
Things took another turn for the worse when Lucia fell very ill and had to be hospitalised. The flexibility afforded by homeschooling has been crucial for Lucia, whose illness would have otherwise prevented her from attending school. She’s now on the road to recovery and is resuming studies at her own pace. “She’s determined to catch up!” Maria says.
A journey of self-discovery
Eighteen-year-old Deborah is originally from the UK, but her family relocated to the UAE 13 years ago. Deborah went to school in Dubai until she was 14, and in that time changed schools four times. "There are loads of options, academically, in Dubai," Deborah says. "But also they all have waiting lists and a few have bad reputations." Deborah also knew she wanted to do A-Levels, while many schools only accommodated the International Baccalaureate. She completed her GCSEs at a boarding school in the UK, but wanted to move back to Dubai. "So we decided as a family that it'd probably be better for me to be home educated."
It was a good choice. "I move around a lot," Deborah says, "and now I can move my studies with me.” And she used to find the school environment stressful, so home study has allowed her to concentrate more on her course work.
It's important to acknowledge, of course, that home study requires a particular commitment from those involved. "It's been tough but eye-opening," as Deborah puts it. "I've realised my worst quality: procrastinating. But I've also improved my organisational skills and initiative.”
Final thoughts about homeschooling
These are just three stories, and every family is different. But if you’ve been thinking about homeschooling, it’s worth knowing that for some, it’s proven to be the best way to approach education while living abroad.