One of the first things that people new to unschooling ask is “Is it legal?” Is it legal to give your children the freedom to learn through following their interests and exploring the world in their own unique way?
The short answer is “YES”, provided you have registered for homeschooling.
To successfully apply for and maintain home schooling registration in NSW requires you to present information about your child’s learning in a particular way and to prepare a plan for their future learning. This chapter will give you all the details you need to confidently prepare for registration or for a re-registration interview.
First, I will summarise the law regarding homeschooling in NSW and then give you some ideas about how to register as unschoolers.
The legal framework
The legal framework for unschooling in NSW is The Education Act 1990. Under this Act, all of the different styles of home education are lumped together under the term “home schooling”. There is no specific mention of unschooling in the Act.
Compulsory schooling and the duty of parents.
Parents have a duty to register their child for “home schooling” and to provide instruction in line with the conditions of their registration.
This legal duty applies to children who are over 6 years of age. If your child is under 6 years old they do not have to be registered.
The minimum school leaving age (which also applies to home schooling) is 17 years, or until the completion of Year 10, whichever occurs first. A child under 17 years can leave school or home school if they are participating in approved education or training (such as TAFE or an apprenticeship) or, if they are over 15, if they are in full time paid work or a combination of training and work.
No matter what style of home education you chose, you must apply for registration under the Education Act if you wish to comply with the law. If a child is of school age it is an offence under the Education Act to fail to register for home schooling if the child is not attending school (section 23).
Not all home educating parents choose to register their child or children for homeschooling. If you make this choice there may be a risk of being approached during school hours by a police officer or school attendance officer (truancy officer) if you are out in public with your child, or the child is unaccompanied. If the officer shows their authorisation card they can request your name and address. They have no power of arrest, detention or physical restraint. In our experience, what usually happens in this situation is that the parents are told that they must proceed to apply for registration.
It is your duty under the Education Act to give your child “instruction in accordance with the conditions of their home school registration” (section 22). On face value, this requirement may seem to pose some problems for unschooling families, but as discussed below, there is usually no problem with obtaining and maintaining registration if you follow some simple guidelines.
The objects of the Education Act
Any Act of Parliament has to be interpreted with reference to the objects that are set out in the first few sections. These “objects” give an idea of what the legislators had in mind when they passed the law. The Education Act makes it very clear that every child has the right to receive an education and that the education of a child is the primary responsibility of the parents.
What does the Act say about home schooling?
When you apply for registration of your child for home schooling, your application is assessed by an “authorised person” who then makes a recommendation to the Minister.
The NSW home school registration process is administered by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). NESA publishes the Guidelines for Home Schooling Registration in NSW (‘the Guidelines’) which detail the requirements for registration and the application process
Registration must provide for the child to receive instruction that meets the “minimum curriculum for schools” that is set out in the Education Act (section 73).
The minimum curriculum for primary and secondary education requires children to be taught courses of study in each of the “key learning areas” (KLAs). (See table below). These courses of study must be “based on, and taught in accordance with a syllabus developed or endorsed by the Board of Studies.” Syllabus documents for each key learning area are available online or for purchase in a print copy. All the syllabus documents together are referred to as the “curriculum”.
According to the law, children must be taught a course of study based on the syllabus/curriculum. The course of study is also referred to as the “educational program” that is offered by the parent. This educational program can be supplemented by “extra curricular activities” outside the home.
In case that sounds far too difficult to achieve while following an unschooling approach, note that the Education Act states that “courses of study in key learning areas are to be appropriate for the children concerned having regard to their level of achievement and needs.” (s 8(1)(d)). This means that the educational program must have regard to the individual learning needs of the child.
If you are of the opinion that your child needs to follow an interest-led approach to learning, I think it is reasonable and legal to adapt your educational program to meet your child’s needs.
When an authorised person conducts their review, either by a home visit or online meeting they have to “sight” the child, but they are not assessing the child. They are assessing you, the parent. They will consider your educational program, record keeping and how you are keeping track of their child’s learning. There is a different emphasis depending on whether it is the first application for home schooling or whether you are seeking renewal of an existing period of registration. They expect to see how each child’s individual learning needs are being addressed.
The minimum curriculum in NSW
|Primary education||Secondary education||Senior Secondary education|
|Students must study:|
Human Society and its Environment – Geography and/or History
Personal Development, Health and Physical Education
|Students must study:|
Human Society and its Environment – Geography and/or History
Students must study at least 2 of these: Personal Development,
Health and Physical Education
|Students must select from the following: |
Human Society and its Environment – Geography and/or History
Personal Development, Health and Physical Education
How can unschooling fit within the legal requirements?
As there is no mention of the different styles of home education in the Education Act, the process for registration and re-registration are the same no matter what style of home education you choose.
You need to present an educational program that is based on the syllabus for each KLA. The syllabus documents set out a summary of the content that is taught in schools. There is no law about HOW or WHEN the content of the syllabus is to be taught. There is no requirement that all the content for each syllabus document be taught, or that it be taught in a particular way, or according to a particular timetable.
The Guidelines for Home Schooling Registration in NSW states that teaching and learning can follow an “interest or project based approach….. Or a personal approach developed to suit the family and the child.”
Interest-led or self-directed learning is a legitimate teaching method or educational philosophy. When I first applied for registration I told the AP that we were following a “natural learning” approach. This was accepted without question, although the AP did still run through their standard spiel about how much time to spend teaching each subject. I nodded and let them know that I’d understood and left it at that.
Unschooling (which is essentially the same as interest-led learning) is less well known, but is becoming increasingly popular. Anecdotal reports from home educating families suggest that some APs are not supportive of unschooling, whereas others have no problem with it.
If you can demonstrate that you are providing an educational program that covers the Key Learning Areas then you are complying with your legal obligations. Tips on how you can do this are given in the section below.
The main challenge for an unschooling parent is to present their child’s interest-led learning in the language of the school syllabus and the key learning areas. Guidance on how to do this will be covered in another article.
The Guidelines for Home Schooling Registration in NSW state that adjustments can be made to enable a child to access the content that is set out in each syllabus. Adjustments can be made to teaching methods, learning activities and assessment methods to suit the learning needs of each child. Materials can be sequenced in a different order and learning can be supported by different technologies. This means that it is fine for your unschooled child to learn things in a different sequence and timing than a child would at school.
What is required to apply for registration or re-registration?
1. An educational program.
The educational program is your plan of what you will be “teaching” your child in the future. NESA does not prescribe any particular method or format for an educational program. You don’t need to specify that you are doing unschooling, but you can refer to it in your educational program if you want. You could also mention interest-led or self-directed learning, but you don’t have to give details on the style of home education you have chosen.
To meet the requirements for registration your plan should make reference to the Key Learning Areas (see table above). It is helpful if it refers to some of the content for each KLA that is set out in the Syllabus documents. You can also refer to the Stage Statements that provide a summary of the KLA content for each Stage.
You can present your program for each KLA in dot points or in paragraph form.
I demonstrated that I was providing an educational program by looking at the syllabus document for each KLA and writing a plan of the learning activities that I thought my children might engage with in the following months. I used some of the language of the syllabus. I made sure that I had educational resources available to my children that would support their learning, including a few workbooks and textbooks, and I provided opportunities for my children to engage with me and with these resources whenever they wanted to.
I included a list of resources that was available to my child in my plan. This included books, games, videos, outings/excursions, craft materials, workbooks, online resources, music and more.
When you refer to the resources available to your child you do not need to be limited by the type of resources that are normally available in schools. For example, if your child is learning from playing video games or watching YouTube channels, include these in your list.
There is no requirement that you identify your child as being in a particular Year or Stage, but you can do this if you wish.
When you apply for registration you can request registration for “primary studies” or “secondary studies.” Your educational program can be spread across the whole of the primary or secondary curriculum. This gives flexibility for your child to explore their interests and learn at their own pace rather than cover the material specified in a particular Stage. Your child does not have to be learning at the same level as their peers in school. For example, your child could be learning to read at a Kindergarten level while at the same time be learning Maths at a Year 3/Stage 2 level.
You can also register your child for “senior secondary education” which covers Years 11 and 12.
Examples of Planned Educational Programs
|Planned Educational Program: English|
(For boy aged 11 registered for Primary Studies)
Stage 2 and 3
Focus on the pleasures of writing: Engage in joint and independent constructions of a range of text types eg. written dialogues, lists, descriptions of experiences, instructions, codes.
Writing about things that interest him including character dialogue for computer games, comics and his own stories.
Shared writing; Dictating text, creating text together.
Writes simple words and sentences.
Learning to spell simple words.
Writes a short text and reads his own writing. Shared editing and proofreading of texts.
Begins to use the computer to write sentences.
Learning to read
Stage 1 and 2
Make books together and read them.
Sight words: Recognize simple sight words. Use “sight word” flash cards and word games to build up reading vocabulary.
Modelled reading: Reading aloud, code breaking, phonics.
Shared Reading: He is keen to develop his reading skills using repetition of words that we read to him on the computer, in books as well as in other areas of everyday life.
Phonics instruction: Soundwaves books.
Read a variety of texts in daily shared, guided and independent reading activities for enjoyment and information. For example; fiction and non-fiction books, computer, video games, newspapers and magazines, labels, signs etc.
Mini-lessons: Word-learning strategies, Decoding strategies – phonics, High frequency words.
Games; playing phonics, card and board games and computer games.
Research; Using books and the internet to learn more about topics of interest.
Use illustrations to make predictions when reading.
Memorize literary passages and poems
Use computer software to find information and play games.
Language structure: Provide opportunities for him to identify nouns, verbs adjectives, sentences, questions, statements.
Have fun with words. Play word games.
Listening to and responding to texts
Stage 2 and 3
Fiction reading and viewing: He loves listening to a variety of texts. He particularly likes fantasy and myths and characters in history. He enjoys a wide range of picture and chapter books from a variety of genres, poetry, comics, internet texts, movies, Television and dramatic productions.
Recount what he has listened to; He is very good at this!
Non-fiction reading and viewing: We often read to him from non-fiction books on a wide range of topics as well as use the internet to gather information. He watches a wide range of documentaries on television.
Excursions: Listen and interact with a wide variety of speakers while on excursions to museums, farms, national parks, historic sites etc.
Discuss and explain matters of interest to himself and others including his brother, peers, grandparents and visitors. Listen to his parents, friends and grandparents discuss and explain things to a wide range of people modelling the different types of language used in different situations. Understands the difference between informal and formal language. Understands the sequencing of ideas in speech.
Teach friends how to play different games and how things work. Give extended procedures and sustained information recounts.
Dramatic performance at home.
Use the phone and Skype to talk to friends and relatives. Conducts coherent telephone conversations.
Talk about grammar eg. nouns and verbs.
PLANNED LEARNING EXPERIENCES AND RESOURCES
Reading from books in our house.
Conversations with a wide range of people in different social contexts, including extended family groups and Homeschool groups.
Individual and group play. Playing a wide variety of board and computer games involving reading. Playing word games to build reading skills.
Reading out loud by parents of a wide variety of texts including a wide range fiction and non-fiction books.
Writing about things that interest him including character dialogue for computer games and comics handwritten lists, memos and labels.
Using our computers for games, gathering information, watching movies and using educational software.
Watching television and movies.
Visiting the library and choosing fiction and non-fiction books that will be read to him and which he can use to develop his reading and comprehension skills.
Reading signs, labels, lists, maps, directions etc in the course of everyday activities.
Drawing and writing comics and illustrations to his own stories and birthday cards.
|(For boy aged 15 registered for Secondary Studies)|
Review elements of Stage 4 Science
The function of cells
Respiration and photosynthesis
Chemical mixtures and chemical change
Stage 5 Science
Processing and Analysing Data and Information
Wave and Particle models
Excursions: Science Center, Australian Museum, Powerhouse Museum
Games: Video games.
2. A system for recording learning activities and your child’s progress and achievement.
When you are assessed for renewal of your registration you must show the authorised person some records that demonstrate how the educational program has been implemented and that your child has been learning. The Guidelines state that the AP will want to see that the child’s “learning needs are being met.” The Authorised Person does not assess the child.
There is nothing in the Education Act that says that you must keep records of your child’s learning or show the AP samples of your child’s work. As discussed above, the legal requirement is that you “teach a course of study” based on the syllabus/curriculum. NESA has interpreted this legal requirement and set out their interpretation in the Guidelines. Keeping records of learning activities and showing how your child is progressing is how they want you to demonstrate that you are teaching your child.
Your system for recording what your child is learning can be personalised to suit you and your family. You might take photos of your child’s activities and keep a written notebook, or you may prefer some sort of digital record keeping. We discuss how you can translate your child’s everyday activities into the language of the curriculum/syllabus in an article to follow.
Your home education records belong to you. You will be asked to show them to the Authorised Person during the home visit or online meeting. The AP does not take copies and they do not have to be submitted to NESA. Your AP may ask for your records to be submitted in an email prior to a visit or online meeting but this is not a legal requirement. You can show your records during the meeting.
One way to demonstrate that you are implementing the educational program is with reference to the Stage Statements that are included in each syllabus document. You can find a compilation of the Stage Statements on the NESA website. You can simply mark the relevant text with a highlighter when you are confident that your child has learned that topic or skill. If your child is still in the process of learning a particular aspect of the Stage Statement, you can mark this with a different colour to indicate that it is “In progress”. It doesn’t matter if your child is not learning at the same Stage as their school peers or if they are following a different sequence of learning. It is sufficient if you can identify some aspects of the Stage Statements that they have mastered.
Will I have to show the AP samples of work?
To demonstrate that your educational program has been implemented you can compile some samples of what your child has been learning. This could be in the form of pages of written text, or it could be photos, audio files, video or screen shots. There is no law that states that you have to provide samples of work or workbook pages, but providing some samples is recommended by NESA. There is also no legal requirement that you keep a daily diary or a list of the curriculum outcomes your child has achieved.
The NESA Guidelines says that parents “typically……. keep records……. relating to the child’s learning progress and interests and of learning activities based on the syllabuses.” Most APs expect to see some “samples of work” in some form.
There is a lot of scope for APs to interpret the law and the NESA Guidelines in different ways. APs have a wide discretion as to how they interpret the requirements for registration and this can be a source of stress for unschooling families. Over the years I have heard stories of APs insisting on additional samples of work, a certain number of samples for each KLA, that timetables be followed and on evidence that curriculum outcomes were being achieved. None of these are legal requirements for registration. If you encounter an AP that is insisting on these things you have a number of options. These are suggestions only. This is not legal advice.
- You could provide some more samples. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to give the AP what they want. This could mean asking your child to complete a few pages of a workbook, or writing a shopping list or short story, or it could mean that you look for more photos or screenshots of what your child has been doing.
- You could state clearly that you are implementing your educational program in a way that meets the learning needs of your child. If your child has been provided with learning resources and encouraged to engage with those resources you have fulfilled your legal obligation. You can have confidence that adopting an interest-led approach to delivering the educational program has been accepted by many APs in the past and is a legitimate way of meeting your legal obligations. You can share whatever evidence you have that your child has been learning. This might be notes of conversations, photos, screenshots, tickets from museums or movies or audio recordings. You can be clear that your child is learning at their own pace and in a way that suits their learning needs. They do not have to learn the same content or in the same style as their schooled peers.
- I have been informed by a number of experienced home educators that you can phone NESA and request a review by a different AP.
There is a process in the Education Act that provides for an appeal to the Civil and Administrative Tribunal if your registration or re-registration is denied.
To give an example of a situation that arises quite often in unschooling families, it may be the case that your child is not reading or writing at the level expected of their peers at school. If your child is 10 years old and is not yet reading or writing fluently, or they are very reluctant to learn or practice handwriting, or to use workbooks then you may be worried about providing enough samples of written work to satisfy the AP. This was a situation that I found myself in, and yet I had no difficulty in getting our registration renewed.
The main way that I demonstrated that the educational program was being implemented was by preparing a dot-point list of “Learning Highlights” for each KLA and providing a few “samples”. The “Learning Highlights: English” document set out below lists resources that had been engaged with for that KLA and various learning experiences. It was supplemented by the following samples for that KLA: two completed pages of a Soundwaves phonics workbook and a printed copy of a World of Warcraft video game walkthrough that had been used for a shared reading exercise.
|Learning Highlights: English|
|(For boy aged 11 registered for Primary Studies)|
Harry Potter Series (audiobooks)
Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales
Beatrix Potter series
Pamela Anderson (numerous)
Graeme Base, “Uno’s Garden”
Dr Suess, (numerous)
DC Comics, Batman Adventures, (numerous)
Sam Childs, “Nursery Tales”
Metzenthen, David, “The really nearly deadly canoe ride”
Ted Arnold, “Fly High, Fly Guy”
The Case of the Silk King – Choose your own adventure series
Leigh Hobbs, “Old Tom books”
“Middlemarch” BBC TV Series – 6 episodes
DK Lego Star Wars books (numerous)
DK Star Wars: “The Force Awakens visual dictionary”
“How we make Stuff” book.
Shaun Micallef; “Mad as Hell” Series ABC
“Antiques Roadshow” Series ABC
“The Checkout” ABC
“The Story of Egypt” SBS
“Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares” Series.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens plus Special Features
Captain America: Civil War
The Jungle Book
World of Warcraft
Screen Junkies/Honest Trailers; “Enjoy our warped take on film & TV with a steady stream of pop-culture parody, original series, thoughtful commentary, and whatever we can think of next”
The Film Theorist: “Do you love overanalyzing movies and TV? The ART of moviemaking and cinematography”
Ashens: “Comedy videos and gadget reviews from a British idiot in an ill-fitting suit”
JonTronShow: “A show about weird movies and games, and a guy who likes to yell at them!”
Jerma985: “Video games are fun”
I Hate Everything: “Bad Movie reviews”
TomSka: “Comedy skits”
TotalBiscuit: “The cynical Brit, Youtube’s No. 1 PC gaming critic”
Yogscast: “Minecraft and multiplayer comedy gaming”
Previously Recorded: “Review Games”
Online chat with friends
Using Google for searching
Making words with “Banannagrams” game
There is no legal requirement for a daily or weekly timetable of learning. The NESA Guidelines state that the time allocated for learning must be sufficient to allow coverage of the curriculum. I never wrote a timetable. Unschoolers understand that learning happens all the time, and not in designated “school hours”. It is sufficient to assure the Authorised Person that you support your child to learn at any time, whether they are learning autonomously or with your direct assistance. I mentioned to our AP that one of my sons often liked to engage with learning resources at 10pm at night, wanting to do shared reading of non-fiction books and research topics of interest together online. This reassured the AP that I was available to engage with my son’s learning and that I was adapting our “educational program” to meet his learning needs.