Farm life provides the perfect backdrop to homeschool their five children, according to Orla Kirwan from Shanahoe, Co. Laois.
She and her husband, William – who is operations manager at Glenisk, and also helps his father run the family beef farm – took the decision to home-educate their five children two years ago.
“The three older children started in school, and there were no learning issues. However, they would often say that they were bored and that they didn’t have enough support in school if they had a problem. It would often be weeks before I realised that they were struggling with something,” she said.
They are very much outdoor kids and they would sometimes be late for school because they wanted to watch a cow calving. They love being part of life on the farm and they have their own cows and calves which they feed every morning and evening.
“The kids would be outdoors in hail, rain and snow, as we believe there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” she said. “We love horse riding and being out and about, and we have always gone to a lot of outdoor education days.
“I didn’t know anything about homeschooling – I thought it was an American thing. One day I heard homeschooling mentioned at one of the outdoor education days, and it planted a seed. Then a friend suggested I look into homeschooling. I looked into it and realised it was a constitutional right.
“I joined Facebook and realised there that a lot of people were homeschooling. I rang the Home Education Network and it put me in contact with people in my own area so I attended a meeting in Abbeyleix. I was blown away by the idea that homeschooling could work well whether you had one child or five, that it’s all about attitude.”
The Kirwans gave the idea some thought before making their decision. “You get so used to thinking inside the box and doing things in that row of boxes. Obviously we didn’t want to do anything that would harm our kids. William had never enjoyed school, although he never had any problems there, and exams always came easily to him, just like the kids. His interest though was always machinery.
On the other hand, I had been used to thinking from an academia and public service perspective, being an occupational therapist.
“School did not come easily to me at all – I had to study, study, study. University though was a different matter – it was continuous assessment, as well as 1,200 hours of work experience, so real world stuff. That’s where I finally became comfortable,” she said.
“Home education was outside my comfort zone but I was in the lucky position of being able to take time out of the workforce to home-educate the kids. The kids leapt when we told them, they were so excited. We informed their school that they wouldn’t be returning after the summer break.
“We sent our application to Tusla to register as a home-educating family. All children aged six and over are required to register. The process was quick and for us, very simple, straightforward and supportive.”
The homeschooling process got quickly off the ground and was enthusiastically embraced by the children. “Whereas they had to be hounded out of bed when they were in school, they started getting up at 7:00am and running down the stairs to play with Lego and go out feeding the calves, sitting at the table for 9:00am.”
“I am always aware that if they ever needed to return to school, they should be at the required level. Every day we do English and maths and either history, geography or science. They would all look at the same topic, but the younger ones wouldn’t do it as in-depth. Whereas Cullan might write a creative piece, the younger kids might draw.
“We would finish book work by 11:45am most days. Most afternoons are spent doing projects such as: art; computer coding; Minecrafts; science experiments; nature walks; Lego or sports. Dinner is at 5:30pm and television is not turned on until 6:00pm.”
The children take every opportunity to revel in the great outdoors. “They like to be involved in some way in everything that is taking place on the farm, whether it’s cattle testing or weaning calves, all within health and safety considerations. We also have a forest on our land, and they love being in the den they have built there. We go on nature walks and they create their own story sticks.”
Whereas the school day would see everyone on different schedules, home education allows the family to take a more relaxed approach. “On a Monday we can go to a home education meet-up at an indoor centre in Dublin, if we want. There are lots of things that we can do now that we could never do before.”
“William trains rugby and GAA teams, and the boys play rugby and GAA. They all love sport. Our oldest son loves arts and crafts, so he will go to a mid-term camp on crafts. The kids are great mixers. They have maintained friendships from the community and made new friends through sport and the home education meet-ups.
“Someone once asked us if we were homeschooling because we don’t want to cut the apron strings, and want to wrap them up in cotton wool. The truth is the complete opposite. This is not about us, this is about opening up the world to our children.”
Looking ahead to second level, the Kirwans are keeping their options open, but would consider conventional schooling, where there is a strong sports ethos. Home education has been very beneficial for them.
Said Cullan (9): “I get to go outside whenever I want. The only sounds are the cows or horses. I get to help Grandad every day if he needs me.”
Billy (8) said: “The farm is great fun. We get to see the animals being born, whatever the time. I love helping Grandad.”
Rogan (7) said: “It’s brilliant feeding our calves every day, especially in November when we sell them and get lots of money.”
Malachy (5) said: “Yes, it’s good living on the farm but it’s annoying when our rugby balls keep going out into the fields.”
For anyone interested in going down the same route, Orla Kirwan has this advice: “I would say, trust your instincts. Start making phone calls; join the Facebook groups such as Homeschoolers Ireland and the county education groups. HEN [Home Education Network] is a great resource. We waited until the decision was easy for us and then we made it.
“Deciding to home-educate can be a scary experience for some. Doing the opposite to what most of our neighbours were doing with their children was scary for us, but not as scary as collecting a different child from school at 3:00pm to the one you dropped off at 9:00am.”
As for farming and homeschooling, it’s a complementary experience, she has found.
The home education schedule is totally flexible. It lends itself very well to farming. There are no school runs in the middle of milking or no pick-ups during calving.
“There is no homework every evening. Your family and work unit complement each other rather than being a hindrance. You are involved in your child’s education from the get-go. You see their struggles, so you can help immediately. You see their strengths, so you can nurture them.”