Singer Chinmayi and others spoke to TNM about what it was like to be homeschooled, a concept where children don't study in the formal education system but get their learning at home through parents or tutors.

Learning with leisure Five Indians on what it was like to be homeschooled Bottom left to up: Dr Rao, Rayna, Chinmayi, Jas, Shalom
Features Education Thursday, December 20, 2018 - 17:36

A typical ‘school’ day for Bengaluru-based Shalom Gauri, till class 8, involved studying till around noon. The afternoons were free, and evenings were for sports or extra-curricular activities. There was no school uniform, no formal exams and no rote learning. 

“My mom is a teacher. When I would have been in class 1, she thought it made no sense for a child to spend all day locked up in a classroom,” the 20-year-old tells TNM.

Like Shalom’s parents, there have been several Indians who have taken the unconventional decision to not induct their kids into the formal education system. Homeschooling, or home education, is a setting where a child is educated at home or a variety of other places by the parent(s) themselves and/or tutors.

Shalom Gauri

In India, the legality of homeschooling is ambiguous, given the Right To Education (RTE) Act that came into effect in 2009, which mandates free and compulsory education for children between six and 14 years of age in public schools. However, there has been no real opposition against homeschooling from the authorities. Further, there are options like the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) that allows for distance learning and for students to appear for class 10 or 12 exams, and the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum, where students can appear for exams when they are ready, as private candidates.

So, what's it like for the children? TNM spoke to five adults who were homeschooled to find out.

A childhood lived to its fullest

Rayna Lele, who is presently pursuing her BA Media and Communication from Manipal University in Karnataka, was homeschooled in Mumbai and Hyderabad along with her elder sister. She learnt at home till class 10, after which she went to junior college.

Till class 6 or 7, the 21-year-old says, it was their parents who taught them. “We’d start at 9 am. Mom did majority of the teaching, and we did have a time table. We would more or less wrap up by 12 noon. Then it was time to play, paint, do sports… That was my parents’ intent - for us to have a regular childhood,” Rayna says.

Rayna and her sister socialised with other kids, and also attracted questions from adults and children alike about their unconventional education. “For the most part, people were curious,” Rayna observes. “A lot of kids were jealous. They thought we could watch TV all day, we didn’t have to wear a uniform. I don’t think I had trouble fitting in, because my parents always explained why we were doing this. And it made sense because a lot of conversation about school that other kids had was about exam related stress that we did not have.”

Rayna Lele (left) with her parents and sister

Bengaluru-based Jas Ahuja, the 44-year-old co-founder of edutech company Wizclub, remembers his days of homeschooling with fondness. Born premature, the Bengaluru-based executive’s parents worried for him and did not want to send him far away. His four sisters, however, went to formal schools. “I would often want to go in a bus, and carry a tiffin,” he laughs. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

Jas studied at a neighbour’s place, along with their kids till class 8. 

“I had a lot of time on my hands because I did not go to a formal school. I spent it honing my hobbies and pursuing my interests, building models of whatever I found fascinating - like underground irrigation systems. I still write songs and ghazals - because I learnt to prioritise the beautiful things in life when I was very young,” Jas says.

Jas is also homeschooling his daughter, who is presently studying the IGCSE class 9 curriculum.

Jas Ahuja and his daughter, Joyce

Flexible curriculum, individual pace

For Jas, Shalom and Rayna, their primary education largely consisted of curriculum that was flexible. Their parents or tutors would consult books not only from CBSE, ICSE or IGCSE, but even outside it. It was only for secondary education that they had to follow a stricter curriculum. While Shalom and Rayna followed the IGCSE curriculum and attempted past papers to prepare for class 10 exams, Jas appeared for his board exam in class 8 at a nearby government school as a private candidate in Agra, where he grew up.

Rayna skipped junior KG because she would listen to her mother teach the syllabi to her sister, who is older by a year and nine months, and hence, she learnt the same things. Her sister, meanwhile, was able to take more time with mathematics. There was no pressure to advance through classes in a set time, though it was roughly around a year, like formal schooling.

While there were no formal exams, there were small tests, quizzing and reference to real life examples to ensure that the kids understood.

Dr Bhaskara Rao, a 71-year-old from Rachavaripalem village in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district, was homeschooled by his parents in the 1950s. He is now based in Oman. Dr Rao says that the 15-minute quiz his teachers had after each 45-minute lesson taught him skills that helped him for life. “We would know to grill the teachers because a quiz was coming. Similarly, the teachers could gauge from the quiz who had not understood the lesson, and they were given special attention,” he says.

For Dr Rao’s family, the nearest school was in a major panchayat, about 7 kilometres away. There was also a stream one had to cross to get there, which would often flood its banks. “The school also practiced strict segregation between Hindus, Muslims and Dalits. My parents did not want me to go for education in such a place,” he narrates.

By 1952, the village had about five dozen five to eight-year-old children who had no school to go to. After Dr Rao’s parents’ efforts demanding a formal school in the village failed, they took things into their own hands. At a community centre, they began to teach their son on their own. “For the first couple of years, it was just me, and an older cousin who would sometimes come. Eventually, retired teachers from nearby villages joined in, as did more children.”

A batch photo of Dr Rao's juniors. He passed out in 1965.  

Homeschooling is also a good option for people who realise early on that they do not want to pursue rigorous academics and opt for, say performing arts, or sports, says playback singer and dubbing artist Chinmayi Sripada. Having realised she wanted to pursue music when she was a teen, her parents decided to homeschool her after class 10. She studied with NIOS after that, which didn’t require her to go to regular school.

“It gave me a lot of time on hand, especially at that prime age of 14 to 17 when you are learning a lot. Not having to go to school and comply with exams, I finished an equivalent of a degree in German, two levels of French… I started taking a lot more specialised classes in music too. By the time I finished my class 12, I had made my debut as a playback singer,” Chinmayi says.

She adds that schools cannot tailor their syllabi according to each individual, and that for people like her who need specialised training in an art form, homeschooling is a better choice.

The pros and cons of formal schooling

Shalom understood the benefits of homeschooling, but found it difficult to explain to other kids. She also wanted to go to school because she had no idea where she stood academically compared to others.

“By class 8, I was 13. And it is annoying to be cooped up in the house when you’re a teen. I did socialise, but after a point I wanted to have friends I would meet every day,” she says. “Besides, when your parents are your caregivers and teachers both, it’s difficult to separate the personal from the study space. Arguments from one sphere can carry into the other,” she adds. Shalom joined a formal school in class 11.

Rayna says she was curious about formal schools but when she eventually joined junior college, she was disappointed with the quality of teaching. However, she enjoys being at Manipal much more because it is a melting pot of cultures and opinions: “That’s one thing formal schools can provide that homeschooling does not I think. I am learning a lot more here from people, about different backgrounds and cultures.”

Dr Rao, on the other hand, found formal schooling to be a “breeze”. “Unlike other kids, we would not study just before the exams. Because of how we were taught in the village, we were able to concentrate there and then, and study after the class only. We learnt to actually learn, and not just mug up,” he says.

Chinmayi Sripada

Chinmayi cautions that homeschooling may have limitations. For starters, you would have to be able to afford tutors, or be educated enough yourself to enable your child to be homeschooled.

“I think what a lot of parents considering home education worry about the kind of equation their child will have with their peers, and whether they would be able to have those friendships right from childhood,” she says, “There are also things like learning to work in teams, with other children, sports teams etc. that you learn in a school setting. So while the formal education system has a lot of problems and I’d like to homeschool my kids, these are some concerns that even I am unsure how to address.”

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