Home schooling puts children in a class of their own
DUBAI // A growing group of Asians in the UAE are opting to teach their children at home.
The parents say they are breaking free of academic straitjackets to encourage their children's creativity.
Western nations have long been open-minded about educating their children at home and some Asians are beginning to adopt the method.
The home schoolers in the Emirates say they feel empowered.
"Learning must be with body, heart and soul, like when you learn swimming or cycling," said Shankar Ramanathan, an Indian online media consultant in Dubai who helps his wife teach their daughter Rianna, 5. "We are not saying that all schools are bad but creativity does get killed in many schools.
"We'd like to pass the message to the Asian community that home schooling is not difficult and it's a very satisfying option."
Asian children are traditionally encouraged towards jobs as doctors, engineers or chartered accountants.
Parents say home schooling helps a child move away from such pre-determined, conventional careers by tuning into their natural talent.
"Children are often sent to school just to get certificates," said Mr Ramanathan's wife, Deepali, a homemaker who studied botany at college and who believes in activity-based learning.
"I use free play," she said. "Up to the age of seven, children learn best through imitation. It's all about story telling, reciting verses, baking, art and craft."
Unlike in the United States, where each state has a different set of legal requirements for home schoolers, there is no legislation in the UAE governing the practice.
Educators and home schooling associations advise parents to follow their own nationally or internationally-recognised curriculum.
Abiding by this or following a programme designed by the Ministry of Education will help if the child later wants to enrol in a mainstream school.
For some families, money is a concern. Some parents cannot afford steep tuition fees in well-known schools and are dissatisfied with affordable schools, which they feel lack facilities and imagination.
"I have three children and schools are very expensive," said Fazil Salam, a Sri Lankan national in Sharjah who works as a network engineer with a telecom company. "But my primary reason for home schooling is that I want a choice and I don't want my children to be pushed like I was. Education must help and not push them into a specific slot."
An information technology graduate, Mr Salam said school did not encourage his goals.
"In my country, the education system is for four kinds of people - doctors, engineers, chartered accountants or lawyers. What if my child is not interested in that stream and not able to achieve that goal? I want my children to grow whatever talents they have, whether in maths, literature or anything else."
Parents want to make education interesting, challenging and fun and say home schooling helps forge a deeper, closer relationship with their children.
More than 100 parents have signed up with the Dubai and Northern Emirates Homeschooling Association and the Abu Dhabi Homeschoolers Association.
Both groups organise pupil meetings at parks, nature trips and book club meetings to address concerns that children tutored at home are isolated or unsociable.
"There are so many different activities that the children form a fellowship of sorts," said Kate Qasi, an American in Ras Al Khaimah who is married to an Indian expatriate. She teaches her three children, who have never been to a school.
"Home schooling has become like a family habit," she said. "It's not just about knowing a subject to teach your children, it's about being enthusiastic about it. What you can do is prepare your children to be well rounded and confident."
Rema Menon, a counsellor and the director of Counselling Point Educational Services, said home schooling works well in the UAE because of the transient expatriate population.
"One size does not fit all and each individual and each family is unique," she said. "It really depends on each family and the goals they set for their child.
"People should be open to home schooling and see how a child responds. Some children may thrive, others may not."
The Ramanathans' daughter is among the enthusiastic home schooled pupils.
Articulate and creative beyond her five years, Rianna paints colourful abstract sketches and thinks up short story ideas.
"Ask me all about home schooling," she chirps confidently. "I play, I study, I sing rhymes, I know my ABCDs. I play in the grass. I like it."
Updated: March 10, 2012 04:00 AM