At a coffee shop in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiyah Mall, three mothers swap anecdotes about their children's education. Even though it is the middle of a school day, their children sit nearby reading books and catching up on homework. But these youngsters have not taken time out of school to be at the mall, because unlike the majority of children their age, they are all being educated by their mothers at home - women who believe passionately in the concept of home schooling.
"I believe I can provide my children with a superior education and it just works beautifully," says 34-year-old Seema Zaman, who educates her two sons - Arsalaan, eight, and Amraan, four - at home. "They are my children; I know what their learning rhythm is and I can cater directly to that and teach them at a time and level that suits them. They don't have to learn in a class of 30 and wait while the slower children get it."
Zaman, an American who moved to Abu Dhabi in January last year, says despite enjoying a conventional education herself she decided she did not want the same style of learning for her own children when she was studying for a master's in education. "Childhood is such a precious time and I want to be able to spend as much time with my children as possible and that involves educating them as well," she adds.
For fellow home educator Krista Heath, the reason for teaching her three children - nine-year-old Mackenzie, 11-year-old Joey and 14-year-old Drew - was entirely different.
"My eldest had extreme strengths and weaknesses. He had taught himself to read but was socially very quiet and never spoke, so to throw him into junior kindergarten would have been very traumatic," explains Heath, a Canadian who moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband, a college department head, eight years ago. "So I decided to home-school him through his early education to cater to those strengths and weaknesses."
When Drew turned eight Heath considered putting her son back into regular school because she was concerned about him becoming too isolated. But despite finding a school she liked, she changed her mind when she noticed a growth in the number of fellow home-schoolers in the area and decided to set up the Abu Dhabi Homeschoolers Association (ADHSA) in 2008 with fellow Canadian Rebecca Avis.
Avis, 51, has home-schooled all of her five children at some stage of their education because she believes parents have a duty to provide the best learning environment they can.
"I have been home-schooling for 20 years since I pulled my eldest child out of grade one because I got the sense they didn't appreciate him," says Avis, whose children range in age from 10 to 24. "Academics play a big part in home schooling and I value that, but it's not the only thing for me. I'm trying to raise worthy young women and men and I think there's more to that than academics."
The ADHSA now has 43 families registered - a huge jump from the original eight in 2008 - representing 10 nationalities including India, Pakistan, Australia, the United Kingdom and Lebanon. The group organises regular field trips, runs book, maths and drama clubs and meets in a park every week to allow the children to play with other youngsters their age.
"I think one of the association's unwritten focuses is to build a positive attitude to home schooling," says Avis. "We want home schooling to be recognised as a valid and accepted method of education so that the community has confidence in what we are doing."
Still, some parents turn their noses up at the concept of home schooling, dismissing home educators as hippie mothers whose only desire is to cosset and overstimulate their child. Others even wonder at the legality of the practice.
There is no legislation governing home schooling in the UAE, so the association recommends parents follow the curriculums and regulations they would in their home nations. It is also advises joining an accredited programme - partly to ensure families have evidence of their teaching methods if they ever decide to enrol their child back into mainstream education.
And with a plethora of online courses, book and DVD guides catering not only to home learners but also to parent tutors, it's easy to see how the concept is gaining in popularity locally.
Up the road is the Northern Emirates Homeschool Association (Neha), which also covers Dubai and has 30 active families and even more signed up who do not participate in the weekly gatherings.
The groups attribute the increase in numbers to the effectiveness of home schooling as well as social issues such as an illness or families not being able to afford school fees or to find a school place of their choice. But every parent has a different motive behind the decision to home-school.
For the mother of five Avis, who has lived in Abu Dhabi with her husband, a health professional, since 2003, deciding what works best for their children has depended on each child's individual personality. While Avis has home-schooled her younger two offspring throughout their education, her elder three have all attended mainstream school at some stage and her 18-year-old middle daughter, Olivia, is at boarding school in Germany.
"It's tough to be a home-schooler during the teenage years," admits Avis, whose eldest children have now graduated from university. "It's easier when they are younger because there are lots more kids of that age. Olivia was doing a lot of online classes and she was not finding it very motivating to be on the computer, and I understand that. So you need to be in tune with your child and for us that was listening and providing what she needed."
But the Neha member and American mother of five Aminah, who did not want to reveal her surname, dismisses the idea that her children lose out by not mixing with other youngsters their age in the playground.
"It's a misnomer that home-schooled children have a problem with socialisation. As long as you have some kind of friendship base and people around them, then the children will not have problems," says the former primary schoolteacher who lives in Sharjah. "At school children have very little time out of the classroom to socialise, so my children socialise far more and they don't have to face the peer pressure other children their age do."
Using a combination of the British and American curriculums, Aminah coaches four of her children at home, aged 8, 11, 15 and 16, while her eldest daughter is now married and lives with her family in America.
Aminah pulled her children out of school after she became frustrated by poor standards. But what makes her story even more interesting is that she taught at the same school herself. The American needed to work to make ends meet when she first arrived in the UAE with her contractor husband six years ago, which required putting her children who had previously been taught at home into her school.
"Their ability dropped so I took them out and home-schooled them even though I continued to work for several years," says Aminah. She juggled her two lives by sending her children to a religious school by bus in the morning while she worked. They arrived home shortly before her in the early afternoon and had a snack and a rest before Aminah taught them for three and a half hours.
"It was tough, but I did it because I am just so passionate about home schooling. I've asked my children several times if they'd like to go to school but they're not interested at all. And in my opinion there is no better teacher for my children than myself.
"I enjoy the flexibility of being able to use any experience possible to educate, whether it's addition and multiplication in a grocery store to a walk on a beach and taking a magnifying glass to look at marine life," adds Aminah, who left her teaching job last year to devote more time to her children.
While Aminah has a set learning structure in place for her home-schooled children and follows standard term times and holidays, there are no rules about how parents should educate their children at home.
"Everyone is different," says the ADHSA's Heath. "Some like structure where they can tick off boxes and some people just do it as it comes along. There is a whole spectrum of styles within our association."
The mother of two Zaman and her professor husband, Faisal, 37, believe "learning happens all the time" and make no distinction between term time and holidays.
"We don't have that balance in my house; my school days and normal days are all the same - there's no shift between them, we learn all year round. And there's no set times. My son could be found doing math at eight at night or at 10 in the morning," explains Zaman. "Sure, there is a weekend because my husband is there and that opens up even more learning opportunities."
But while the psychologist Devika Singh believes that home schooling can be a great alternative arrangement for many, she says children still need structure.
"They need breaks for the same reason adults need a few days and weeks off. This means their academic curriculum should be segmented and structured. Otherwise you run the risk of burnout," Singh says. "Home schooling definitely changes the dynamics in a family because the parenting role and teaching roles are blended. This can be dealt with by having repeated and direct conversations with children about 'learning time' and 'play time'."
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One dad's savvy school solution
The Northern Emirates Homeschool Association member Tavis Stewart, from the United Kingdom, decided to pull his 13-year-old stepdaughter out of one of Dubai's most expensive schools after becoming unhappy with the institution's education standards.
"The quality of teaching was not what you'd expect for a school charging Dh70,000 a year," says Stewart, 50, who also has an 18-year-old stepdaughter studying in Dubai and three grown-up children from his previous marriage who live in the United Kingdom.
"The teachers were changing all the time or filling in on subjects that they did not specialise in and they didn't seem sure about how our daughters were doing so we lost faith in their ability.
"Home schooling was not something we'd ever considered before but my stepdaughter is very bright and needed to be pushed and that wasn't happening."
With Stewart's wife working full time as the chief executive of a fashion company, it was up to him, a writer and leadership coach, to guide his daughter through her new education programme.
He signed her onto a British-based online school, which she attends every day during term time at 1.30pm. There are 17 other students in the class - some based in the Middle East, others in the UK - who can all hear the teacher and see anything she writes on the whiteboard.
The class can communicate either by talking or instant messaging each other; their homework is then handed out, and when it is marked the grades are loaded onto the system to allow parents to track their children's progress.
"We can also e-mail or talk to the teachers ourselves, which works a lot better than when she was in school," adds Stewart, who supplements the three-hour sessions by paying for three one-on-one tutoring sessions in the evenings in the core subjects of maths, English and science.
"It's much more focused and it costs us less than half the price of sending her to school," says Stewart. "She is also a lot calmer, and the stress of getting up in the morning and getting to school on time has gone."
While his stepdaughter is still in contact with friends from her school she did initially crave the company of peers her own age, and a year into the programme she decided she wanted to return to school. However, within two weeks of being back she left again after she was targeted by Facebook bullies.
"Our only concern is the social side," admits Stewart. "But it's up to us to get her out to meet people and do sports and stuff."
And what about the playground politics - often considered the first steps towards navigating the many challenges of adult life - that come with attending a mainstream school?
"We have met some home-schooled children who are softer and could do with the interaction that school provides to harden them up, but my stepdaughter is very mature and because of the character she is it works for her," Stewart says. "However, I think it could be more of a problem for other children."