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Homeschooling in Singapore is not just for foreigners

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Local homeschooled youths share the pros and cons of their unconventional curriculum.

For many, school seems like a daily dread. 

It means waking up at 6am to battle the commuting crowd, attending dreary morning assemblies and sitting through endless math and science classes, just to get home with more work than you started the day with. 

But for around 50 children in each cohort each year who are homeschooled, 'school' is a whole new experience. 

Youth.SG spoke to three youths who grew up in a homeschooling environment to find out more about their experience: Caleb Ng, 19, and Ning Koo, 18 – who were both homeschooled by their parents till they were in Primary 5 and Secondary 4 respectively – and Dorothea Wong, 23, who chose to be homeschooled only at the age of 17. 

Learning without worrying about grades 

Homeschooling never seemed like an option to Dorothea until an exchange trip to the United Kingdom when she was 15 years old. 

She gained a new perspective on what learning should be like after experiencing interactive English literature lessons, where they learnt their texts through live plays.

Dorothea later became dissatisfied with the local education system and its overemphasis on grades. She would then leave Dunman High Secondary's Integrated Programme to start homeschooling at the age of 17. 

"When you get an A grade, you feel happy, but you don't remember anything you've memorised. I questioned the point of all this cramming and regurgitating," said the Singapore Institute of Management undergraduate. 

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Dorothea (left) found the time to embark on more mission trips since she started homeschooling, such as one to Sarangani in the Philippines where she taught kids English.
PHOTO CREDIT: DOROTHEA WONG 

Ning Koo, who was homeschooled since her kindergarten years, also shared similar sentiments about the teaching system in mainstream schools. 

"A lot of the things they teach are really interesting, but they don't teach beyond what is required to get an A grade. That really kills the joy of learning," said Ning. 

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Ning is currently enrolled in Serangoon Junior College, the first mainstream school she has attended.
PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/ANDREA CHOO 

She continued: "It's not that Singaporean children don't want to learn, just that they grew up in an environment which emphasises a lot on the paper chase, which is a pity." 

A common quality amongst these youths who were homeschooled is the ability to view learning beyond grades. It remained with them even after they returned to mainstream schools. 

Caleb Ng, 19, first enrolled into a mainstream school at 11. Now a first-year medical student in Nanyang Technological University, he recounted how the stress of exams did not stop him from enjoying school.

"I was really excited to attend mainstream schools even though I dreaded exams and the stress to perform well. That was the most daunting part to me during my transition into mainstream schools, but I took each exam as a learning experience to improve myself," chimed the friendly youth. 

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A fan of water sports, Caleb was homeschooled between the ages of 6 to 11 (Primary 1-5).
PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/ANDREA CHOO 

The freedom to explore their passions 

Ning found the flexibility and freedom of homeschooling the best part of her experience. 

Her homeschooling process did not follow a set academic programme provided by an institute. She could choose between taking live online classrooms or parent-taught classes, depending on the subject she wished to pursue that semester. 

"The freedom to learn really develops one creatively," said Ning, an avid fan of Roman history. 

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12-year-old Ning (right) presenting her rollercoaster prototype at the parent-organised Homeschool Science Fair in Singapore.
PHOTO CREDITS: NING KOO 

For Dorothea, starting homeschooling at 17 was one of the best decisions in her life. 

"It truly gave me the opportunity to find out what passions I have as a person," said the sociology major as she beamed with pride. 

During her first homeschooling year, Dorothea embarked on two mission trips to Taiwan and the Philippines. She also started a Christian girls' magazine, Kallos, with two other friends who were homeschooled. 

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Dorothea (third from left) and her Kallos team celebrating the Christian girls' magazine's first year of print.
PHOTO CREDITS: DOROTHEA WONG

Correcting stereotypes about homeschoolers 

Being a rare breed in Singapore, homeschoolers often have to face stereotypes from other youths. 

"Whenever people hear that I was homeschooled, they ask if it was a very boring phase where I have no friends, sit home and do nothing. But I honestly don't understand where they got that from," said Dorothea, bemused. 

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Dorothea (second from the left) and her closest friends from her homeschooling years.
PHOTO CREDITS: DOROTHEA WONG 

While the two other youths come from a Christian background, Ning is active within a local Buddhist organisation: The Singapore Soka Association. 

Ning shared: "We actually meet many people when we attend extra-curricular or cultural activities on our own. For me, I had many friends from Soka that I meet around three to four times a month." 

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Ning (left in white blazer) and her friends who started the Model United Nations club by themselves in 2015, one of her many extracurricular achievements.
PHOTO CREDITS: NING KOO 

Challenges along the unconventional path 

However, as enticing as homeschooling may seem, there are still its downsides. 

After enrolling into public schools, some homeschooled youths realised how much more support mainstream students get. 

"There is lack of resources and opportunities when you are homeschooled. If you want something, you have to do your research about it, find like-minded people, garner support and funding," said Ning. 

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9-year-old Ning (left) observing the Venus flytrap in a class about Botany.
PHOTO CREDITS: NING KOO 

Likewise, Caleb felt that homeschooling isn't for everyone. 

"Those who are thinking of venturing in homeschooling should do thorough research because you need to be very informed and disciplined to plan your academic progress," Caleb warned. 

"Although homeschooling definitely allowed me to expand my interests, the strict structure and 'grind' that mainstream schools work by allows one to focus and structure their learning," he stressed. 

A different way of learning

As these youths shared more about their passions, I felt inspired by their zest towards life and learning. 

Compared to friends who were educated in mainstream schools whose choices are often driven by their academic goals, these homeschooled youths seemed more willing to welcome challenges. They saw the value in picking up knowledge or skills, even if it would not seem to directly aid their academic progress. 

This made me curious about how life would have been like if my friends and I were homeschooled. 

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Dorothea (middle) said her parents, who value excellence more than grades, supported her decision to be homeschooled.
PHOTO CREDITS: DOROTHEA WONG 

"Many of my friends…wish they heard about homeschooling earlier. They said maybe their lives would have changed drastically, maybe they would still enjoy learning and know what they want to be," said Dorothea. 

Joyful that homeschooling has been gaining traction over the years, all three youths remain hopeful that it can become a more viable and visible academic option in the near future. 

"I would like my kids to experience homeschooling before they enter mainstream schools so that they can find their interests and pursue it," Caleb said. 

BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/ANDREA CHOO