With many parents struggling to home school their children during the Covid-19 pandemic, the advice from a home educating farm family is not to try to recreate school by acting as the teacher but rather to facilitate learning.

“These parents have not chosen to home educate their children. They are being asked to continue the curriculum at home,” said mum-of-five Orla Kirwan from Shanahoe, Co. Laois, who has been homeschooling her children who range in age from six to 12, for close to the last six years.

“This is an extremely stressful request of parents in an already stressful environment of Covid-19.

“When we began our home education journey, we had the support of HEN, the home education network which in turn gave us contacts within the home education community.

“Our children made friends; we made friends and we were supported by wonderful families who shared their experience, strength and hope. We have workshops; day trips; and families over to our house,” said Orla.

Parents right now are being asked to educate in isolation. It’s an extremely difficult situation to be in. There are Facebook pages set up in order to support each other and people can pick up the phone and talk to each other.

“I can’t imagine any parent not struggling with ‘school at home’. When we tried a similar set up it was disastrous for our family dynamic. Luckily, we found another way,” she said.

“From my experience of home educating, I would hold tight to the fact you are a parent first and foremost. Many families are attempting to ‘copy’ school and in turn become ‘teacher’. ‘From my experience, this will not work,” Orla contended.

“We tried this when we first began our home educating journey. We had set hours for subjects. It worked well for a while but my children were bored and disinterested, going through the motions. They were gnarly with each other.

“When our second youngest became involved and couldn’t understand why he had to complete certain worksheets, colouring in became a task rather than something he did willingly and by choice, we had to evolve,” she said.

Constantly measured

“I was terrified, to be honest, wondering how will they learn? How will my eight year-old go to university if he doesn’t finish his ‘Busy at Maths’ book? We found these systems; processes; curriculums; and books were designed for school.

“They allow for large numbers of children to be constantly measured so that the teachers and principals know exactly where they are at, boxes can be ticked and the next step taken. They weren’t personal,” Orla contended.

“However, it is personal to parents and children who are struggling academically; socially; psychologically; and physically. If they are lucky they may get extra help, or an aid in the classroom but for the majority, they continue to struggle through.

“This is not the teacher’s fault; for the most part they are doing their very best. They are also part of a system that is churning away regardless of the individual ability, interest, struggle or mental health of the children involved,” she said.

“Home education is about each individual child. If you take choice and self-direction away from your children at home then there will be backlash. Home is where they can be themselves, choose their day.

“I had to allow my children to ‘deschool’, let go of the strict schedule, the comparisons, the measurement and bring it back to basics and focus on their relationships with us and each other,” Orla said.

At home they are not measured by their aptitude. You do not need to teach. You can facilitate by sitting with them and playing Lego or whatever it is that sparks their interest: board games; card games; baking; watching TV; or going for walks.

“The world is literally your oyster. You will be amazed what your children will chat about when they are in their comfort zone. There are books on my shelves which my children pick up, programmes like Mathsfactor Mathletics; Mathswhizz; Chess Kids; Literacy Planet; ‘Teach your Monsters to Read’; and Reading Eggs Science and History,” said Orla.

Leaving Cert

“There are so many programmes out there that your child can choose whatever suits their learning method. Kids are yearning to learn. They will do it at their pace, in their way. We facilitate it as best we can.

“Home education is personal and unique to every family. Our children will work out what job they want and they will do whatever is necessary to get it.

“The Leaving Certificate isn’t the only way. A Fetac level 5 will get you a zero round offer in the CAO. When you home educate, your children are self-directed; in turn they will achieve whatever they put their mind to,” Orla contended.

“In our experience, the educational system is flawed for the teachers, parents and, most importantly, the children. Statistics and studies are consistently showing us that our exam structures are not proportional to ability. Children are anxious; unhappy; struggling and self-harming; suicide rates are steadily increasing,” she said.

“For us, it seemed that there was a rat race in our primary schools. Children are scheduled for their entire day: wake up; breakfast; car; school; timed lunch; school; homework; after-school activities; home; dinner; bed. Is their day any different to the adults in their lives?

“As parents, we have so little time to parent and children have so little time to be children. The system was not working for adults in the working world so we began to realise that it wasn’t working in our schools either. It’s a flawed system. Home educating allowed us to make this about our children again,” Orla said.

In our experience, the educational system is a one-size-fits-all system. Unfortunately no two children are the same. It seemed like an endless ‘big bang’ type build up to the Leaving Cert, where the mammoth question of “What are you going to be?” will finally get answered.

“We had got this so very wrong. There was no balance in this. We want our children to be themselves and in turn help them find a pathway to whatever profession they choose.

Starting off home educating can be daunting and anxiety can set in about your children’s learning level, Orla acknowledged.

“This is more usual if the child has been to school. We have to trust the process. They will learn. They may take more time to trust their instincts and begin their home educating journey but children are natural learners.

“All – and I say all – of the adult children of home education that we know are either in training, university or employed in their chosen profession,” she said.

While a common concern voiced about home educating is that children may lose out on social interaction, she is adamant that this is not the case.

“The media like to portray ‘socialisation’ as a home education hurdle. But this is an outside looking in problem; it is not what we experience day to day.

“We are asked time and time again: ‘How can home educated children make friends when they are not surrounded by children all day long in school?’ By choosing our friends, by surrounding ourselves with like-minded children who are friends because of interest, not just age or proximity.

“Our children have friends of all different ages. There is a vast home education community out there. We have friends over every week as well as going to weekly workshops and meet-ups. We have the GAA, rugby, dance and other activities. And most importantly, their sibling relationships have developed into real friendships also.”

Orla’s husband, William, is operations and project manager for CJ Sheeran’s Group, Mountrath, and helps his dad on the family beef farm, with the children also very involved.

“It is a local company so they understand the value farming gives to the local community. They are more than understanding if William is a little late because he’s calving a cow or helping his sister with milking,” said Orla.

Farm responsibilities

The children all have an active interest in the farm, she said. “All have responsibilities such as feeding calves, horses, dogs and chickens; sowing vegetables; and picking stones for grandad – a real favourite! They watch their grandad plan the year and their thoughts marry his.

“They help getting the cows in; feeding through the winter; getting cows out and calving. They have memorised the statistics of every bull on offer from Fergal, our AI man. They know what cows will be for sale, what field will be cut or reseeded.

They love to help out their aunt on her dairy farm, feeding the calves in spring and silage in the summer. They know the importance of looking after the land and the animals and that it in turn looks after us.

Life continues as normal on the farm during Covid-19. “The children miss their friends, a lot. We normally have friends over all through the week and have weekly workshops and meet-ups locally too.

“All of that has come to a halt. We have continued doing what we always do. At the moment we are doing a project on the big bang. We immerse ourselves in it through books, movies and documentaries. Our librarian in Mountrath, Triona, is amazing. Every home educating family needs a Triona!” said Orla.

“Our world is under pressure from so many quarters. Allowing our children time to grow and be themselves in a safe and nurturing environment that is personal to them is in the best gift I can give my children.

“I feel a lot of parents are beginning to see the benefits of stopping, taking stock and seeing that really the most important thing is family.”