Improving education outcomes for children means finding a middle ground between intrusive regulations and having no oversight at all.

THERE were a group of teenagers already inside when I entered the auditorium at the Raja Tun Uda library in Shah Alam.  They were all talking at the same time, laughing out loud at some things that were said and then excitedly greeting a girl who had just walked in.

They fit the common description of teenagers, except these kids do not go to school. Their parents had chosen homeschooling.

I was there to listen to six homeschoolers who shared their journey of how they charted their own path in learning and growing without formal schooling. My first impression of them definitely did not match the description that fits the “weird, socially awkward homeschooled kids” — a common problem associated with homeschoolers.

“Contrary to popular belief that there must be something wrong with homeschoolers, I am perfectly normal,” said Luqman Avicenna, 22, the first speaker at the sharing session.

There are a few reasons why parents choose homeschooling as the education path for their children. One extreme reason would be they are ideologically opposed to mainstream schooling and see it as an unnecessary or an inappropriate intrusion into family life.

Another reason would be some parents see schools as failing their children and believe homeschooling is a more suitable alternative.

Luqman said behind every home-schooled child is a parent who believes that they could educate their children better than if they were in the mainstream education system.

“On that point we all want the same thing. So, regardless of whatever approach or school of thought we subscribe to, in the end, we are all looking to improve the educational outcomes of our children,” he added.

This is also the crux of those who asked for the recognition of the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), a long-standing issue.  According to the task force set up by the Education Ministry to study the issue, matters in the bigger educational context were brought up by parents  in most of the discussions that have taken place.

Reasons presented  on choosing the UEC  were mostly within the perspective of  parents’ choice based on their views on national schools’ issues and lack of confidence in the national education system.

While parents have the right to bring up their child with a different view, plenty of reasonable disagreement exists about what constitutes a great education.

Few would deny that all children need are basic skills of literacy and numeracy in order to function independently as adults. But good education is not only about the development of basic skills. What are the other skills, knowledge and dispositions children should develop? And whether such expectations should be standardised for each child are some of the important questions we should ask.

Luqman, who has attended both public and private schools,  decided to homeschool despite getting straight As in the Penilaian Menengah Rendah. A unique perspective based on his experience, he said,  is that he could see what works (and what does not) from every angle.

He said the school does a lot of things right, but he believes what made his homeschooling successful was exposure to all manner of experiences and empowerment to educate himself beyond the school syllabus.

He now works full-time after rejecting an offer with partial scholarship to pursue a Liberal Arts degree in the US. He admitted that getting a job without a degree was not easy.

He self-taught himself in graphic design and was hired as a graphic designer after showing proof to his current boss on what he could do and suggested ideas that he believed could give more impact to the company.

So, is giving parents the choice to pick their children’s schools the key to improving education in Malaysia? Can giving freedoms to parents to school their kids protect their children’s interest?

Parents should be given a wide latitude in the shape of their curricula and the experiences they provide for their children. Their voices must be considered in discussions of educational choice. But lack of external accountability can leave too much room for neglect and abuse to go undetected.

Protecting those interests, while honouring the role of parents in shaping their child’s educational experience, means finding a middle ground between intrusive regulations and having no oversight at all.

In Malaysia, the persistence of vernacular schools has for many years generated both intense debate and resistance that they may contribute to the destabilisation of the role of schools in nation building.

“We really should not be arguing with each other but instead be united on the same front of asking for better educational outcomes for our children. It is the way to create a sustainable better outcome,” Luqman said.

“If we force a change, it is just going to recoil and come back. Really, we are all on the same side, just fighting it differently.”

The writer, who left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom, is NSTP’s education editor for English content.