The number of children in Northern Ireland being homeschooled has risen by almost 180% in the last five years, it has been found.
Around 800 school-age children will be homeschooled this school year, which ends this week, according to the Education Authority (EA).
That’s a huge increase from the 287 in primary and secondary schools just five years ago.
The biggest increase has come in the last two years and is believed to have been the result of Covid-19 lockdowns that have seen many children being homeschooled.
The number of children studying at home has more than doubled from 155 in 2019/20 to 329 this year.
But the number has steadily increased in recent years. In 2017/18, 116 primary school-age children and 171 secondary school-age children were kept away from school.
The total number is now around 800, although parents only have to report to the school authority if their child has previously attended school or has special educational needs.
The Covid pandemic has seen a huge increase in material being made available online to parents as children have been forced to switch to online learning, making it easier for them to become more involved in their child’s education.
But during the times of school closures, the Department of Education claimed that getting children back into school was a priority as it was “the best place for children”. Many critics of homeschooling suggest that children who are kept away from traditional schools are missing out on the social aspect of life they have to offer.
Children in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council boroughs are most likely to be homeschooled. During the last school year, 98 were registered as home schooled.
In the Belfast area, 96 have now been trained in a similar way.
Children in years 11 and 12 (fourth grade and fifth grade) learned most often at home, with 117 fourth graders and 112 fifth graders withdrawn from the classroom. These numbers have also risen sharply and have almost doubled in the last five years.
NI Commissioner for Children and Youth Koulla Yiasouma said she is aware of the increase in children and youth being homeschooled both before and since the pandemic.
She said the EA needs to develop a registry of where and how children are raised to ensure no child is left behind.
“In my August 2019 deliberation on the Board of Education’s revised guidelines for elective homeschooling, we made it clear that the responsibility of government for children’s education is not just limited to schools, but wherever children are educated, including in their home.” She said.
“One basic idea was that every school-age child should be able to prove where they received their education and that they were making progress corresponding to their age.
“It is also important that monitoring processes are in place and that they are carried out appropriately and in a timely manner.
“The rising number of deregistered children, adding to the unknown numbers of children who were never registered, makes our calls today even more relevant in light of these numbers.”
The commissioner said her advice, given to EA in 2019, still stands.
“The EA should seek to reach out to parents considering opting out as early as possible to determine whether failure to provide their children will hasten the decision. In these cases, the EA should attempt to address complaints and compile information on the reasons for opting out.”
She added that there should be a legal obligation for all home-raised children to register with the EA and that the EA should be legally required to certify annually that they are receiving an effective education while parents are required to do so should provide information to support this assessment.
Parents in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, have the legal right to home school their children under a legal obligation to ensure that the child receives a full-time education from the age of four to 16.
However, there is no obligation for homeschooled children to follow the Northern Ireland curriculum or sit national exams.
Parents or guardians also don’t have to be a qualified teacher, according to EA’s website.
Education authorities across Northern Ireland reserve the right to make annual home visits to provide advice on a child’s progress.
If it is determined that a child is not receiving an adequate education, the EA may impose a school attendance order. It can also provide guidance to parents.