There are many reasons why families choose to homeschool their children, from wishing to personalise their education to protecting them from bullying to strengthening the family bond. Those who decide to switch to homeschooling can face quite a few challenges, both logistical and psychological, including criticism from family members. Homeschoolers are often asked, 'What about socialisation?' The common answer is that school is not the only place for children to socialise; there are also clubs, social groups, and other homeschooling families. IQ.HSE presents a few facts on homeschooling in Russia based on a paper by researchers of the HSE Institute of Education.
This publication is part of the collaboration between IQ.HSE and the 'Inequality' Strategic Project of the HSE Institute of Education.
'People are often suspicious of [homeschooling]. But I believe there should be options. [People should be allowed to choose] either this or that; there is no need to force it on people but no need to see it as something bad either,' said one respondent of a homeschooling study conducted by HSE researchers Kristina Lyubitskaya and Katerina Polivanova.
'School teachers are often annoyed at homeschooled students who suddenly jump in and need an assessment, while the teacher is already facing a huge workload,' says another study participant. 'This [attitude] makes parents feel they are treated with prejudice.'
The most common question that homeschooling proponents face is about child socialisation. ' Extracurricular activities which keep children interested and engaged take care of it,' says another respondent. 'In fact, we find the kind of [school] socialisation that currently exists somewhat questionable.'
While homeschoolers often report facing misunderstanding and judgmental attitudes, these appear to make little difference. Homeschooling remains the most popular form of out-of-school education by far, chosen by more than 20,000 families in Russia according to the Russian Ministry of Education.
Being homeschooled is not necessarily about having Mum and Dad as teachers: some families hire private tutors, while others enrol their children in online schools or courses. Whatever the arrangement, the main aspect is that the family makes all decisions about, and takes all responsibility for, the child's education. According to some international sources, parental beliefs are the key consideration in the choice of homeschooling. Even more importantly, homeschooling families appear to be motivated by their active role in the strategic and everyday aspects of their child's education.
The Law 'On Education in the Russian Federation' N 273-FZ refers to this model of schooling as 'family-based education'. According to Article 44, parents 'have priority over any other persons in respect of their children's education and upbringing.'
While quite common in the United States (where 1.69 million children were homeschooled in 2016), and also in Canada, Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, and Denmark, homeschooling is illegal in Armenia, Belarus, Brazil, Croatia, and Cuba.
In terms of homeschooling regulation, Russian law is fairly liberal, allowing parents to choose among different forms of education without pressure from educational authorities (similarly to the minimal amount of control in Italy and the UK). Homeschooled children are required to physically show up at school only for intermediate and final assessments (tests and exams). However, here lies one of the problems.
While homeschooling parents virtually replace school for their children and take on some of its workload, the family gets very little in return from the educational provider to which their offspring is formally assigned, other than an occasional consultation with a teacher or some textbooks. Quite often, homeschoolers remain invisible to schools, hardly ever noticed and rarely understood.
Indeed, many people, including those who choose to homeschool, are not sure how home-based education works in practice. 'Switching to family-based education was a decision that took us a long time to make [...] because we had no idea whatsoever how it all worked,' a study participant recalls. 'There is very little information available about it. [...] My neighbour, who is the deputy head teacher at a school, dismissed the idea, saying these were just my fantasies.'
But whatever school administrators may say, homeschooling exists and merits scholarly study, like that carried out by Kristina Lyubitskaya and Katerina Polivanova to examine the reasons why families choose to homeschool, the barriers they face in making the transition to family-based education, and the solutions they have come up with.
Between 2015 and 2019, the researchers surveyed and interviewed homeschooling parents from Moscow, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Kaliningrad, the Republic of Tatarstan, and other Russian regions. The survey sample consisted of 151 respondents, and 33 interview transcripts were selected for further analysis. The respondents, recruited via relevant online communities, were aged between 25 and 49 and had school-aged children. Most surveyed parents had higher education and were employed. The study findings shed light on country-specific aspects of homeschooling in Russia.
The study reveals that the inadequate quality of school education, as perceived by parents, is one of the key reasons why they choose family-based education for their children. In particular, parents were dissatisfied with the teaching style (describing it as short of the 'proper level') and resented 'superfluous' subjects in the curriculum. The best solution, according to parents, was to take charge and design their children's education. As one respondent commented, the family 'followed the child's interests' in doing so. Being able to choose the most suitable teaching methods for their children was also mentioned as an advantage.
There were other important factors, such as a desire to strengthen family relationships, eg among siblings or between parents and children, to involve fathers in caring for children, and to get to know their children better. Improving the child’s motivation to study was also a consideration. According to one respondent, her son loved to study, but hated going to school. Switching to homeschooling appears to have solved the problem.
Other factors that tipped the scales in favour of homeschooling included problems with teachers and classmates, such as bullying—according to one participant, her son had been beaten up at school—and certain health conditions. In one family surveyed, the child had to switch to home-based education in the middle of a school year; due to frequent colds, digestive and kidney problems, he needed to visit a gastroenterologist and a nephrologist and was unable to attend classes full-time.
The survey respondents cited the following reasons for their choice of homeschooling: 52% did so in an attempt to overcome the (perceived) shortcomings of the school system, 17% wanted to strengthen the family, 14% hoped to improve their child's motivation to study, 7% made the switch in response to problems with classmates and teachers, and 5% did so due to health problems.
Other studies reveal that parents' reasons for the transfer to homeschooling can also include frequent change of residence, the child's involvement in professional sports or creative activity, and wishing to protect the child from unwanted influence and avoid peer pressure or comparison with other students.
The study reveals a number of logistical and psychological problems associated with the transition to homeschooling and its implementation. Logistical challenges, reported by 40% of the surveyed families, included organisational aspects, parents' lack of required competences, time, finances, and teaching materials, and resistance from schools making it difficult for parents to transition to home-based education and to obtain assessments when needed.
Psychological barriers, reported by 16% of the surveyed families, could arise both during the transition and in the process of homeschooling. Some parents reported facing misunderstanding and criticism from other family members as well as their own uncertainty about the decision to homeschool.
Psychological issues arising in the process of home-based education were reported by 27% of respondents. Some participants experienced an internal conflict between the parent and teacher roles. Similarly, their children were sometimes confused as to whether they were dealing with a demanding teacher who provided instruction and expected good performance or with a loving, accepting and protective parent.
Asked to define their role in the learning process, 38% of respondents described themselves as teachers, 29% as process managers, 14% as parents, and 13% as assistants. Some respondents reported combining roles, eg those of parent and assistant or manager and teacher.
Managing the learning process and monitoring student performance was perceived as particularly stressful: parents struggled with motivating their children to study, creating a diverse learning environment at home, and preparing their child for assessments. Those parents who did not report any particular problems with the transition to homeschooling may still have experienced some challenges but perhaps sought and received assistance, eg from online schools and similar services.
Many respondents found helpful advice and solutions on social media. Some consulted with experts online and watched webinars and video lectures on the topic. According to the survey, 65% of homeschoolers networked with like-minded people, eg by joining relevant groups.
About half of the parents relied only on themselves to steer their children's education. Of those who sought professional assistance, 21% accessed educational centres and 20% hired private tutors.
The teaching and learning materials and approaches used by parents included popular science literature, school textbooks, self-study books, and online courses and lectures. In other words, the parental arsenal was much broader than that used by most schoolteachers.
While the Russian law on education gives parents a lot of freedom in deciding how best to educate their children, the number of homeschooled children is not very high in Russia. Other than parental preference for school-based education, this may be explained by parents' limited time and resources and a lack of infrastructure for homeschooling.
While parents in the United States choose to homeschool due to a negative perception of the school environment in terms of safety, peer pressure and other factors, parents in Russia opt for homeschooling in search of a better education for their children. Another important aspect of Russian homeschooling is mutual support of families that helps with many challenges. Homeschooling associations are often set up by large families experienced in homeschooling their own children and willing to share their expertise with others.
There is an abundance of unsolved problems in homeschooling, and financing is a prominent one. Although the federal law generally provides that homeschooling families are entitled to support, the exact procedure and amount of compensation are left to the discretion of regional governments. The study reveals that only some regions and municipalities make such compensations available. Homeschooled children are often denied some of the benefits available to other students, such as public transportation subsidies, and cannot access public educational services other than assessments.
As long as home-based education is in demand, the needs of homeschooling families, which effectively take on the role of schools, must be addressed and relevant support provided. Such support can take various forms, from consultations and methodology advice to providing teaching and learning materials.