Only 1 in 3 homeschool kids fail to meet MOE benchmark at PSLE
No degree, no worries, reckons one parent
Asher Ong is 14, but has never stepped into a school classroom.
And while some of his peers fret over complex mathematics problems and how to get into that class with triple sciences, he tinkers with his DSLR camera, hones his videography skills and plays the cello.
This is exactly what his parents, Mr Dan Ong and Mrs Ong Suwei, were aiming for when they decided to homeschool him and his five younger siblings.
"We wanted to give our kids an education that was tailored to their learning pace and styles, as well as give them the flexibility to act on their passions and interests."
The Ongs have chosen a curriculum based on the Accelerated Christian Education syllabus. It covers subjects including English, Mathematics, Science and Bible reading.
When The New Paper on Sunday visited the family at their five-room flat in Yishun, one of the first things that greeted us was a large brown table.
Set against a mural of a tree, which the whole family helped to paint, the table is where much of the studying happens.
"But most of the time, every one is at different places doing their own thing," Mrs Ong says.
All the children chip in to do household chores, which include cooking.
Playing computer games is not encouraged, says Asher, because they can be quite violent and go against his religious principles.
For similar reasons, he does not go to the movies either.
Towards the end of this interview, Mrs Ong organised an impromptu performance, which saw the six kids and their parents sing a Christian benediction featuring different musical parts.
Mr Ong says a key reason why his children are homeschooled is because the couple want their kids to have an education based on the Bible.
Says the 43-year-old, who teaches part-time at a secondary school: "I've seen children without guidance fall into delinquency. Homeschooling allows us to have direct influence of our children's passions and values."
Aside from Asher, his other children also actively pursue their own interests such as playing the violin, flute, piano and sewing.
Though it sounds idyllic, there is still a certain amount of stress.
Children who are homeschooled have to pass a minimum standard for PSLE.
Explains Mrs Ong, 39, who was a teacher for about 1½ years before quitting to look after her first child: "Homeschoolers are on a very different track from students in the mainstream schools. They use a different curriculum and syllabus.
"More tests force us to slow down our progress made with the homeschooling curriculum to sync with the MOE (Ministry of Education) one."
Mrs Ong says other homeschooling parents she has spoken with share similar sentiments.
"One parent said that the MOE tests are pointless because of the difference in curriculum. He said that it is like testing a Mac user on a Windows operating system."
Asher himself did not make the minimum standard at PSLE and retook it last year when he was 13.
Says his mother: "We knew at the start of the year that he might not make it. So we just talked to him gently to prepare him, but encouraged him to try his best."
The amiable teenager says that while he felt sad shortly after the results were released, he got over it pretty quickly.
"It was a time where I grew spiritually, because it helped me to depend on God," says Asher.
He made it on the second try.
If children do not meet the MOE benchmark, they are returned to mainstream schools.
While Asher's PSLE grades may send some parents into a worried frenzy, Mrs Ong does not see it as an indication of how well her son will do in life.
She is candid about the fact that not all her children may attend university.
"The path is open wide, and nothing is a given."
She is keen for them to pursue their own passions, apprenticeships and internships, on top of mastering academic subjects.
A devout Christian, Mrs Ong says that her emphasis in parenting is on "growing successful adults who can thrive in society, wherever God has called them".
Homeschooling mum, Mrs Connie Lim, is also not too bothered if her children do not have university degrees.
"I have friends who own their own businesses, who say that some local graduates don't know how to present themselves or know what they want.
"I think character and other skills are more important than paper qualifications.
"Besides, if they would like to pursue courses while working, there's nothing to stop them," says the mother of four, who is in her 40s.
She believes that one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling is its ability to produce children who can carry conversations not only with their friends, but with adults.
They are also unafraid of asking questions, she says.
"There is no herd instinct, where you may be afraid to speak up because others in your class are keeping quiet."
Still, there are challenges, admits Mrs Ong.
"It's not a set path because every step is an unknown. But that's also what makes it exciting," she says.
Asher will take his O levels in two years' time.
But instead of cramming it in, he will split taking the exams into two years.
Asked about grades, he says he is not really concerned. "My main goal is learning and understanding the concepts, not really doing well on the tests."
Neither does he feel different from his friends at church, who attend mainstream schools.
"They don't seem to talk that much about school anyway," he says.
"Something technical, hands-on, perhaps engineering or film-making?"
What is homeschooling?
Is school compulsory here?
According to the Compulsory Education Act, children between the age of six and 15 have to attend a national primary school regularly, unless they have been exempted by the Education Ministry.
The idea is that schools offer strong academic and co-curricular curriculum with multiple pathways for advancement. "In the process, students interact and learn with fellow students, grow up together and share a common educational experience, thus forging our national identity and social cohesion," says an MOE spokesman.
When are there exemptions?
Homeschooling parents applying for an exemption must provide information on the curriculum of their homeschooling programme to MOE, and show that they have the requisite resources and educational qualifications to adequately take on the role of educating the child.
Parents also have to indicate how the child will receive instruction in National Education.
How are they tested?
On a national level, homeschooled children have to attempt the PSLE when they are between the ages of 11 and 15.
They have to meet the PSLE benchmark, pegged at the 33rd percentile aggregate score of students who take the four subjects in national schools in that year.
One in three homeschooled students who have taken the PSLE in the last five years have failed to meet this benchmark.
From this year onwards, they will have to take a new test at the Primary 4 level. They do not have to "pass" this test as it is a checkpoint to gauge their progress.
An MOE spokesman said that this, along with annual reports parents have to submit on their child's progress, are part of the monitoring of homeschoolers to ensure they are receiving an adequate education.
After PSLE, the kids can pursue their choice of educational certificates and qualifications. These can be used to gain entry into varsities here and overseas.
Back to mainstream schools
For five years, Madam Ong Ling Chen homeschooled her two older children, in hopes of inculcating Christian values and fostering stronger family bonds.
Two years ago, the mother-of-four sent Danielle, 11, and Dillon, 10, back to mainstream schools.
"I used to coach them in all subjects, 'outsourcing' only classes such as swimming and piano," she says.
"But as they progressed academically, and as I had more children, I found myself less confident of teaching them, especially when it came to writing Chinese compositions," adds the 38-year-old, who used to be a primary school teacher.
The PSLE, which all homeschooled children have to take, updates its syllabus and testing methods regularly, she points out.
"I am currently not too aware of the examinable components. And if I have to send them to tuition classes, it kind of defeats the purpose of homeschooling."
The adjustment back to mainstream school was not without its hiccups, she reveals.
Danielle suffered from a bout of separation anxiety at first, which was solved by handing her a mobile phone to call home with.
"The teacher also made sure she had someone to go to recess with, which really helped," she says.
Both kids have to contend with longer days, as they wake up earlier and spend more time studying in the mainstream school system compared to homeschooling.
Still, she has no regrets, as these teething problems went away with time and both children are now well-adjusted.
With a brood of four to juggle now, Madam Ong says her younger two children aged four and one, are unlikely to be homeschooled.
"I would encourage parents to try homeschooling before the child reaches the age for attending Primary 1. Especially when you have only one child, it is manageable," she says.