What do the likes of Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Thomas Edison, Mozart and Franklin Roosevelt all have in common?
Unlike the majority of us, these famous minds all received their education in a unique environment without teachers and classrooms. They were homeschooled.
A method of education that first came to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, homeschooling has become an increasingly popular choice for parents around Australia.
In Western Australia, there has been a 75 per cent increase in the number of registered homeschoolers since 1999.
Although registration with the State government is mandatory in WA, it is believed that many more children are not registered.
It’s a similar story around the country, with the actual number of students being homeschooled likely to be more than double the number registered.
In Victoria, numbers are on the rise too. In 2008, there were 1,829 children being homeschooled but, in 2012, the number had hit 3,435.
While homeschooling is illegal in many European countries, advocates of the method point out that organised school education only became common in the 19th century. Prior to that, most people were educated by family members.
Yet one might ask why would parents choose to teach their children at home in today’s world when there are so many excellent schools from which to choose?
For one Perth family, it was a leap of faith that has become “the best thing we’ve ever done”.
Scott and Linda O’Callaghan have run their own business from home while simultaneously turning their lounge room into a classroom for the past seven years.
The couple began homeschooling in 2006 after their first son, Mark, finished Year 2.
“We always wanted to do it,” Mr O’Callaghan explains. “Something happened at school and we weren’t happy with the responses we were getting, and then we took the plunge.
“It’s so hard to take that first step … you’ll get many people who say ‘Don’t do it’, and even our parents said that, but we’re so, so happy that we did.”
The O’Callaghans, who have just had their eighth child, say it was the pursuit of a well-rounded, holistic education that inspired them to begin homeschooling their children.
“We’re not trying to be the best … we just want an education that will take them through life,” Mr O’Callaghan says.
“We want them to do the best they can do and want to feed them with educational food. And we find that everything’s basically in the Catholic Church.”
For another Perth family, it was seeing the behaviour of homeschooled children that set the wheels in motion for embracing the idea.
“I was working at John XXIII bookshop in Melbourne”, mother of five, Leigh Marvin, recalls, “and a lot of the kids who were coming in were homeschoolers, and I was just really impressed by their mannerisms, by their characters, they really just stood out.”
Unlike the O’Callaghans, Leigh and Nick Marvin began educating their first child, daughter Anastasia, as soon as she showed an interest in reading.
“We thought we would homeschool before we had the children,” Mrs Marvin says.
Both families begin the school day with morning Mass, before tackling subjects including maths, poetry, religion, art, science, grammar, history and music.
The children’s studies may be derived from one curriculum source, such as Seton Home Study or Our Lady of Victory School, or may be composed of elements from several different curricula.
The former method is referred to among homeschoolers as the “classical” model, while the latter is called the “eclectic” form.
While there are many different curricula available to homeschooling families, it takes a significant amount of research to discover the most suitable one/s.
“The internet is so full of things that it’s actually very easy to be successful … there’s just so much out there to make it possible,” Mrs O’Callaghan says.
In most homeschooling families, it is the mother who generally takes on the role of teacher, in addition to running the household.
Fortunately, the children often have a mix of independent and supervised work.
“The older ones have got work they do on their own that I correct later on, and they have other subjects that I have to teach with them,” Mrs O’Callaghan explains.
But filling the dual roles of parent and teacher can be challenging.
Educated herself at a Catholic school, Mrs Marvin says there have been times when she has questioned if she’s doing the right thing.
“Sometimes I panic,” she says. “I remember one stage, years ago, where … I kept seeing all these letters in my head of how [the kids] were writing them and how it was incorrect.
“I knew every single letter that they couldn’t write properly and every single sound that they couldn’t remember, and sometimes that’s really overwhelming.”
But her grounding in the Catholic faith and attending daily Mass is what holds things together.
“I wouldn’t homeschool if we weren’t Catholic … I don’t see how I could cope with it because my prayer life is the absolute key,” Mrs Marvin says.
On a practical level, both families agree that being organised is the key to pulling off the double act.
“I would say the secret to success is faithfulness to your routine, faithfulness to doing what you have to do every day,” Mrs O’Callaghan says.
“The logistics are hard but once you have a routine it’s okay.”
Some of the other difficulties homeschooling families face include teaching children of various ages and levels, and having to remain at home most of the day.
“You can’t just do whatever you want to do in the day, especially for the mums,” Mr O’Callaghan says.
“Sometimes it’s hard, so there’s a sacrifice involved, but it is fulfilling.”
One common criticism of homeschooled children is that they have little social interaction with others, but for both the O’Callaghans and the Marvins, the problem does not exist.
“It’s the biggest fallacy ever,” Mrs Marvin says emphatically.
“It’s so uneducated to think that or even say that – that you have to be at a school to socialise.”
While she admits that some homeschooled children can feel lonely, Mrs Marvin says being in a large family provides children with the best friends they could have.
“The world wants you to send the baby out when it’s a few weeks old to childcare, what to toughen it up? I understand some families need to do that, but that’s not what a child needs,” she says.
Aside from believing homeschoolers receive limited social interaction, it seems there are still some who think homeschoolers are weird or crazy.
“We’re trying to shrug off the hippy, alternative idea, from people who are older who have that idea of homeschooling,” Mr O’Callaghan says.
Similarly, Mrs Marvin says people still tell her “You must be either Catholic or crazy”, to which she responds, “I’m both”.
But such a sentiment soon gives way to admiration for the momentous task that such parents have taken on.
“Whenever we go out we always get a positive comment, and I think most homeschoolers would get that,” Mr O’Callaghan says. The rise in homeschoolers around Australia has been accompanied by a growing homeschooling network that provides support and resources for families.
“There’s a Catholic homeschool group that meets up every month,” Mr O’Callaghan says.
“It’s always growing, even in the Catholic homeschool group, it’s grown over the years.
“And the interesting thing is that the ones who were homeschooled are now having children so the second generation is starting.”
For all the challenges that homeschooling presents for young, busy families, there are many benefits in store for both parents and children.
One of the biggest advantages for Mrs Marvin is the ability to tailor a curriculum to each child’s needs.
“It can be a bit complicated sometimes, but it just means that each child’s way of learning is covered, and you get to know what your child needs, which way they learn,” she says. “Some things they’ll still find boring … but in this way you can hone in on their interests.”
Not being limited to a 50-minute lesson which ends the moment a siren is heard is another advantage for Mrs Marvin.
“If they need more time to understand something, then you can give them that time,” she says.
Homeschooling families also have the flexibility to arrange and rearrange the school day and even the school calendar.
“If something happens within a family, if they’re moving, if they’re renovating, if there’s a death, or a serious illness … you don’t have that added pressure of getting the kids to school at a certain time,” Mrs Marvin says.
Working from home predominantly, Mr O’Callaghan says being able to spend more time together as a family was one of the biggest drawcards of homeschooling for him.
“They’ve got to see me work … they’ve also helped the work in the orchard, and I’ve just seen them grow up which is a huge blessing for me,” he says.
“They are the treasures of your life … and I’m really so happy we did it. You get to actually know them and they get to know us.
“It was the best thing we ever did for them and for us, because now we see our children grow up.”
Mrs Marvin agrees: “I don’t think you have enough time when the kids are at school,” she says.
“It’s unfair for the parents and for the kids because by the time they get home everyone’s tired and there’s not really much time, and I think kids want time to be together.”
Although there are some who believe every family should homeschool their children, Mrs Marvin says each family has its own needs.
“I believe it’s a calling within the family,” she explains.
“I don’t go out and spread the word and say ‘Everybody homeschool’ and things like that because … it’s not for everybody.”
But whether parents choose to send their children to school or not, there is a shared end goal that all parents have.
“Nick and I want them to go to university, if that’s what they want, and what God wants for them, and I want them to achieve, I want them to be the best that they can be,” Mrs Marvin says.