By Alvina Ashraf and Zoha Khan
When Pink Floyd sang “we don’t need no education”, they probably didn’t know entire generations would relate to it. The school has been synonymised by angsty teens, rockstars and conspiracy theorists alike with a factory moulding everyone into the same product.
In Pakistan, successive governments have neglected the education sector to the point of criminality. A lack of pluralistic curriculum and absence of critical thought has resulted in an abysmal education system.
Like the rest of the world, these issues have led some parents in Pakistan to homeschool their children. While the idea is mostly met by a deep frown, many parents are successfully implementing it.
Living in the beautiful green spaces of Malir Cantt, Urooj Seemeen has been homeschooling her children from the start. She is a computer engineer by profession and says she abhorred the way education system functioned in Pakistan. She has also spent a significant amount of time in different schools as a Quality Assurance Manager. This was when she thought seriously about homeschooling her children. Her eldest, Hashim is nine while her daughter Nusaybah is five.
“Most schools have become synonymous to factories. The treatment of parents as clients and students as mere products really irked me. It was like meeting some sort of target: processing and producing a batch of given products in a set period”. This was the last thing Urooj wanted for her children.
If you are not sending your children to school, what do they study? There is no hard and fast rule or a set system, Urooj says. Her children are free to choose what and when to study, “Since I myself used to go to school as a child and having served in various schools as a teacher as well, I won’t deny I had that typical teacher mindset which at some point I employed, out of sheer desperation to make my older child, Hashim, learn everything.”
Urooj pasted placards on every wall within his reach in pursuit of instilling a reading habit only to realise later that it was a wrong approach. “The urge to make him an early reader clouded my judgement as I literally tried to force it this way. That is when I started to research more and more and came across [homeschooling proponent] John Holt. This was it! It was a turning point.” Holt was an American author and a leading voice in promoting homeschooling.
“No curriculum could give what a child can explore and then assimilate in on his own,” Urooj believes. She also mentioned resources like Iqra Cartoons and Reading Eggs that had helped her children learn on their own.
While school teaches discipline and routine, homeschooling can often miss these aspects. This is why Urooj tries to lead by example, and that is what she thinks can make homeschooling successfully possible. “The key to excel at homeschooling is practise what you preach. A child does what he sees. If I want Hashim and Nusaybah to offer Salah and recite Quran daily I make sure I do it myself and so is the case with learning and reading. We pretty much do all our research work and readings together. Similarly, I follow a proper sleeping pattern so that my children adopt the habit of sleeping on time and rising early. That’s how you do it!”
In a society like ours where dissent or even a little digression from the norm makes one an outlier, the idea of homeschooling would certainly not fit well with most people. Urooj faced a lot of criticism by both her own family and in-laws. Eventually, persistence, and later, the result itself helped win everyone over. “It was depressing but then good things don’t come easy. Both my families are on board now and fully support me.” In fact, now my mother-in-law recommends it to others and even fights the criticism that comes my way on my behalf”.
A major concern of parents and critics alike is whether the kid will get to interact with and socialise enough to not develop adjustment issues in the society as an adult. In fact, it is a common perception children would be completely deprived of any sort of interaction with the real world. Urooj vehemently disagreed.
“My son’s first international victory in a competition validated homeschooling for them (critics). My family’s views significantly changed when they met my circle of homeschoolers.”
She dismissed the notion that schools enable socialisation at a bigger scale than homeschooling. Aside from participating in various national and international competitions, Urooj makes sure to take her children to book clubs and literary meet-ups from time to time. Wednesdays are “Park days” where all homeschoolers in her circle gather with their children for quality time and interaction.
She also regularly hosts robotics club at her residence. “Children are not even allowed to converse as soon as they get into their classrooms until and unless it is recess time. I believe, my children socialise way more than a child does in school.”
Urooj says her children are always exhibiting somewhere and participating in competitions. “Every year, my children participate in GET, a competition led by the Generation’s School. This is just out of many!”
Hafsa Naeem is another mother who is homeschooling her children. She welcomed us in her cozy house and took us to her naturally lit study room. There, we met her two daughters, engrossed in their study lessons.
Hafsa also has her own unique story of how she convinced her family of the idea. “When I decided to homeschool my daughters, my husband wasn’t sold on the idea. Later, when I successfully helped him with his MBA studies and exams, he realised what I really meant by homeschooling our daughters. He said, “If you can teach me this, you can definitely teach our children simple algebra!” And that’s how I convinced my husband”, the former banker told us with a hearty laugh.
During the time her daughter was in school, Hafsa and her bond suffered as her daughter interacted with her less and less on daily basis. She remembered spending her days telling her children frantically to “hurry up” and see them prepare for different school activities and assignments endlessly.
“Kids are being labelled very early on in their lives and that label stays with them for life. They eventually become that label.” Hafsa said, likening schools to factories instead of a learning institution.
Like Urooj, it was the dismal state of education in the city that forced Hafsa to make this decision. She was disheartened by how schools don’t appreciate out-of-the-box ideas.
It has been over eight years since Hafsa made the decision for her daughters. What’s more, Haneen, who is 14, and 11-year-old Aafia also have an online business!
The girls, along with their mother, run an online playdough educational supply shop. They sell homemade playdough and also incorporate it into fun educational projects.
Hafsa and her daughters sound enthusiastic while explaining their business venture to us. Recently, Safia, who is 15, has branched out and has started her own slime business by the name of Pop Slime.
“Schools would have bound my children with a robotic routine, and the girls wouldn’t have been able to cater to their business the way they are doing right now.”
Besides, Haneen is also an aspiring illustrator and a comic artist. Her first work as an illustrator was published in the book “The Little Red Ant”, published under the Education Research Institute run by her maternal grandmother.
Unlike a lot of parents, Hafsa doesn’t believe in fretting unnecessarily about the screen time for her kids. “Why should I ask Haneen to put away her laptop when I can clearly see that she is developing a skill?” She did however stress that it is important to strike a balance.
Conversation then turned to Hafsa’s mother. Running a school system means she prefers that kids complete their education at a proper school, but said she fully supports her daughter too.
Another important aspect to consider is higher education. Hafsa informs us that Haneen has now started to prepare for her O’levels.
"Haneen is interested in sociology, economics and I am advising her to opt for accounts as well. She tried biology and chemistry but doesn't think that's her forte."
Urooj is still letting Hashim explore more as he is just nine.
“One day he wants to be an astronomer and the next he wants to be a marine biologist,” she laughs. She said she will prefer O'levels for her children over matriculation.
Both mothers don't feel the need to enroll their kids in any tuition centres and schools for O' Level preparations.
"My mother is also an educationist and knows many teachers, so her advice and connections are always beneficial for my children" Hafsa adds.
Urooj meanwhile says that she understands the challenges of higher education as she herself has worked as a teacher.
We then ask Hafsa and Urooj as to how they manage their own schedules considering their children don’t have a strict outside schedule.
"I quit my job after Haneen was born but that didn't stop me from doing my own thing. I have my own activities. I am currently in a fellowship programme for budding entrepreneurs," Hafsa said.
She adds she had to mould her schedule according to her girls' needs. “Our playdough business is also what keeps us together without any pressure. Our schedule is so in sync with one another that we don't have to make a conscious effort to be together.”
Homeschooling has also made the kids independent. They can study by themselves or take help from online resources such as Khan Academy and Duckster, Hafsa says.
Urooj says she simply had to switch her priorities after deciding to homeschool her children. "Since I run my own business, it has been easy for me to manage. My children tag alongside if no one is available to take care of them at home. They bring their educational toys and books with them and stay with me until I am done."
Upon asking whether she offers the same to her other female staff, she says, "Of course! We talk about women empowerment, but we make it so hard for women to survive in a professional setting. I make sure their needs are met and no such ugly sacrifices are demanded. I am doing my part by doing what is within my power and hope others will do too."
She went on to share how she boycotts every social event or conferences which don't allow children, "If they don't have room for my children, I don't have to attend them at all", she says firmly.
Homeschooling might come across as an easy alternative. But for many women, it can simply not be an option. Many want to maintain their high-end careers. Others, from the working and middle-class, cannot depend on the man alone to support an entire household.
Urooj, however, said homeschooling could be as expensive and as cheap depending on how one plans it. It is all about budgeting and investing the right way, both say.
“People take homeschooling as an attack to their belief system but it is not. It’s just that what works for me, may not work for others.” Hafsa concludes.