Why more parents in the UAE are homeschooling their children

Rising school fees and cuts to employees’ benefits make it more affordable than mainstream schooling.

Caridad Saenz teaches four of her six children. Christopher Pike / The National
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Marcela Romero is a stay-at-home mum, but on weekday mornings you will not find her fretting over what to put in school lunch boxes, or piling her kids into the car in Al Ain for a school run.

Ms Romero – mum to Josue, 8, and Agustina, 6 – is among a growing number of parents who choose to teach their own children at home.

Included in the list of subjects is "real-life" education.

"I teach them practical life skills, such as cooking, household responsibilities, groceries and organising parties," she says.

"We keep learning fresh by visiting different interesting places, and by developing in my children a deep curiosity and desire to understand the world around them."

Parents teach their children at home around the world, but here rising school fees and cuts to employees’ benefits make it more affordable than mainstream schooling.

And with long school runs twice a day, it can also make sense time-wise if one parent is prepared to do the teaching.

If Emirati families choose home schooling they are required to use the UAE curriculum, with education authorities providing curriculum materials and support. But the Ministry of Education does not have regulations for expatriates.

Those parents go it alone, join organisations offering home-schooling programmes in their home countries or form a community with other like-minded parents.

"There are no school laws for non-Emiratis," says American mum Seema Khan, who runs Home Education Network of Abu Dhabi, which has 60 members.

"They ask us to follow the education laws of our home countries."

Samantha Gautier, also of the US, has been teaching her three children – Hashim, 9, Nourah, 8, and Omar, 5 – for the past three years in Abu Dhabi.

Ms Gautier says her family made the decision when there was a shortage of choices after Hashim had bullying problems at his school.

"It’s definitely growing because of the economy," she says. "A lot of people are having a hard time paying the tuition, which is increasing every year. A lot of people are seeing the differences between what’s being taught here and where they are from.

"And there are people whose kids were being bullied at schools.

"For whatever reason, they’re choosing to pull their kids out."

For other families, "unschooling", or allowing learners to follow their own interests, is a lifestyle choice.

Caridad Saenz, a Cuban-American mother of six, started teaching her eldest son Juan Jose, 14, when he was in Grade 2 and the family lived in Las Vegas.

"The teacher recommended that we home-school because he was reading at such a high level," Ms Saenz says. "He seemed bored at school."

Her children have followed their natural interests. Juan Jose has a passion for game designing; Juan Diego, 10, loves playing piano; Juan Pablo, 9, enjoys maths; and Tica, 7, loves the theatre.

"It can be a problem that they want to be on their gadgets all day," Ms Saenz says.

"We’re very child-oriented so we let them, but if we see that they’ve hit a week where they’re just not learning anything new we try to spark their interest.

"This Saturday, we brought out a frog from a biology dissecting kit and went over the anatomy."

Learning at home does not suit all children.

Sallyann Della Casa, who runs the educational organisation the Growing Leaders Foundation in Dubai, says children who are intrinsically motivated are better suited to home schooling.

"Those who enjoy working alone and at their own pace, are genuinely curious, willing to explore and well-disciplined may flourish," Ms Della Casa says. "Children who get their energy off other kids may not thrive."

She says that in the growing "gig economy", in which many young parents work from home, home schooling can be a viable solution.

"Home schooling has become big business and is highly customisable with the rise of online learning academies," Ms Della Casa says.

"Even Stanford University now has an online high school."

Ms Saenz and Ms Romero are members of the Al Ain Homeschool co-operative, a community that has grown to 26 families since 2014, and has members from South Africa, America, Australia, the UK and the Czech Republic.

It is a support network that enables parents to teach each other’s children as well as their own.

Ms Saenz teaches etiquette and charm classes, and Ms Romero teaches history and geography to a friend’s son, as well as her own children.

So far this year, the Home Education Network of Abu Dhabi has organised trips to KidZania, Al Ain Zoo, Junior International Model UN Association, snorkelling and volunteering.

"The world is our classroom," says organiser Ms Khan, who teaches her three boys aged 14, 10 and 5.

"We have the freedom to explore our host country, socialise with people of all ages and professions, and take advantage of local talent and mentors."

While many home-schooling parents pick and choose age-appropriate supplies through their own research, Ms Gautier is more structured in her approach.

She pays Laurel Springs School in California US$2,500 (Dh9,180) a year for each child, which includes books, shipping and a detailed curriculum.

When they started, Hashim was lagging behind academically and had to repeat Grade 1. Now Ms Gautier considers him to be "gifted and talented".

"Home schooling can be exhausting. It’s something you have to be serious about and it’s very time consuming," she says. "But it’s also a great way of bonding with the kids."

One drawback is that children can miss out on the social side of school.

"Socialisation has been a little bit difficult," Ms Gautier says. "But I signed them up for public speaking and acting classes, where they’re able to meet other children and improve how they speak.

"I’ve always given them the choice to go back to school, but I think in a way they were traumatised by their experience and they’re much more comfortable at home."

Ms Romero’s son Josue says he "feels different" when he explains to other kids that he is taught at home.

"He doesn’t like that so much," she says.

Home schooling can give an exceptionally gifted child the time to dream big. American mum Brandy Hawkins has been teaching her daughter Melody, 11, for the past two months so she can focus on training as an international gymnast.

"She needs to work out in the morning, then we take her to Dubai to train for three hours," Ms Hawkins says.

"She can do schoolwork in the car and get more sleep in the morning, as there’s not that pressure to have to get to school on time."