Shirley Erwee, 20 April 2020
In numerous media discussions about the current schooling crisis, certain academics have made a point of saying that “parents can’t replace teachers” and that the notion of parents teaching school subjects is “ridiculous”.
However, in a country like South Africa, where the school system is “broken and unequal”, it is very disappointing to hear such negative comments; comments which
- undermine the confidence of parents, who want to help their children learn
- are disrespectful to children and their ability to learn without “professional help” and
- are mere opinions with no evidence-based research to back them.
You know what they say about opinions …
Covid-19 is not the only affliction that puts our nation’s children at risk. The system is plagued with problems like:
- sexual abuse
- teacher absenteeism
- lack of resources
- dangerous infrastructure
- lack of sanitation
- inadequate training and
- a lack of measurable learning
In this educational climate, one would expect experts in education, to support and encourage any and every parent, who is invested in home education.
My mother was a teacher and some of my closest friends. I have nothing against teachers. I know how hard the good ones work. Some teachers touch and change children’s lives and set them on a trajectory for success for life. I am grateful for the ones that touched my life.
My message today is that parents can teach.
We may not be subject matter experts who are trained in classroom pedagogy, trained to set exam papers, mark essays or do the admin that the system requires. We will never replace teachers in the school system. We’re not teaching 40 kids at a time, we’re teaching at most, a few and there is evidence proving that parents are highly successful at helping their children to learn.
Parents do not have to be certified teachers in order for children to learn and conversely, children do not have to be taught by professionals to achieve academically.
Abundant research shows that, “The best predictor of student success is the extent to which families encourage learning at home and involve themselves in their child’s education.”  Parental involvement is a key factor affecting academic achievement, whether children attend school or are home educated.
Children are wired for learning complex skills.
I have an honours degree in Linguistics and English Language Teaching. I have studied the enigma of learning and teaching languages and all their intricacies. Most parents don’t have this kind of education and yet they are the primary teachers and role models, who enable their children to learn language skills. Children are wired for learning. They master things like the complexities of sentence structure, semantics (the meaning of words), tenses and most of the exceptions to grammatical rules – all under the care of their uncertified parents.
Why mislead parents to believe that they can’t continue to help their children learn less complex subjects? Although children go to school, it’s most often their parents that sit with them doing homework, giving the one-on-one tuition they need to practice and develop their skills.
It’s often a parent who discovers that a child is struggling and needs extra help. The phrase ‘falls through the cracks’ refers to children at school, who are not given the individual attention they need by the certified professionals. Why do we have that phrase if teachers are such essential experts? You see, teaching does not guarantee learning.
Commitment is the key to academic success.
Parents who choose home education are highly motivated to help their children succeed and to find solutions to any challenges. Why else would they choose this unconventional option and make the sacrifices it requires? You don’t need a certificate to help a child, you need commitment and love – something that certified teachers can’t give every child.
If a homeschooling parent discovers that their learning materials are not effective, in about 20 minutes, she could find an alternative. In the school system, it takes about 20 years to overhaul a failing system and implement a new one. This adaptability to provide individualised learning is another key to success.
While parents may not be experts in challenging subjects like high school-level Physics, Calculus or the analysis of English Literature, for example, most homeschool curricula are written by home educating parents who are subject matter experts. Their curriculum products are created specifically for the homeschool scenario. Many of them enable children to learn via video-tutorials, comprehensive teaching guides and explicit answer keys. By high school level, home educated children have been trained to take ownership of their education and they have become self-motivated learners. Like their school-going peers, they can also get help from experts in their community, online or specialist tutors if they need it.
The proof is in the pudding.
In South Africa, home education has been growing since it was legalized in 1996. Following the global trend, there is anecdotal evidence of many young home educated learners who have completed their matric exams and continued to study at university, taken jobs or even started their own business ventures. They are successful, self-supporting adults, making positive contributions to their communities and the economy. Their parents were their teachers.
Academic research from the USA shows convincingly that home educated children can learn without certified teachers:
In a comparison of the performance of home educated and public school students on three standardized tests, the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford Achievement Test, home educated learners scored 30 percentiles higher than their school-going peers.
Dr Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute found that with public school students at the 50th percentile, home educated students were at the 89th percentile in reading, the 86th percentile in science, the 84th percentile in language, math, and social studies. 
(The percentile is not the test score, the 89th percentile means that 89% of all students scored lower than homeschoolers in reading, for example.)
The level of education of the parents had little effect on the academic achievement of home educated children: If neither parent had tertiary education, homeschoolers scored in the 83rd percentile. If one parent had a university degree, they scored in the 86th percentile. If both parents were college graduates, the students scored in the 90th percentile.
Interestingly, whether home educating parents were certified teachers or not had no effect on their children’s academic achievement!
This evidence proves that children can learn very successfully, without certified teachers.
Let’s build support for alternative education instead of undermining it.
Academics with no personal experience of home educating children should read the evidence which shows that home educated learners are also better socialized than their school-going peers, are more tolerant of other religious, political and social groups and are more actively involved in civil society as adults, than the general population.
If you think it can’t work, then you don’t know enough about home education. You are still prejudiced, because you have only ever experienced the school system in which you were educated. International research  shows that home education is highly successful. In contrast, the school system, in South Africa especially, is not.
I call on everyone – friends, neighbours and grandparents, churches, businesses, schools and even teachers – even those who don’t choose home education for their families, to support those who do, especially those in the poorer socio-economic groups of society.
We should be thinking of ways to make learning resources readily accessible in other places, outside of the dysfunctional school system to support the most needy, who might prefer alternatives too.
There is no freedom in education if the law and your circumstances allow you only one option.
Parents can successfully educate their children at home. We are the best ones to be in charge of our children’s learning because we love our children and we have their long-term best interests at heart. As the research shows, there is also a good chance that we can do it better than anyone else.
1. Broken and Unequal. The State of Education in South Africa, report by Amnesty International
PIRLS International Results in Reading, 2016
2. How Parent Involvement Leads to Student Success, https://www.waterford.org/education/how-parent-involvment-leads-to-student-success/, accessed 20 April 2020
3. Dr Brian Ray, What Does the Evidence Say?, Global Home Education Conference, Berlin, November 2012, http://www.ghec2012.org/cms/content/what-does-evidence-say-ray , retrieved 05/08/2013)
4. Dr Brian Ray, Research Facts on Homeschooling, https://www.nheri.org/research-facts-on-homeschooling/, accessed 20 April 2020