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Coronavirus: Homeschooling Northern Ireland mum shares lessons for parents

Susan Keenan, from Belfast, took responsibility for her children's education when the family went travelling in the Far East while the boys were in primary and secondary school. With thousands of children now out of school due to the coronavirus crisis, Linda Stewart finds out her advice for mums and dads here

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Susan Keenan with husband Michael and sons Ben and Tom during their first global adventure, and the boys at work

Susan Keenan with husband Michael and sons Ben and Tom during their first global adventure, and the boys at work

Susan Keenan with husband Michael and sons Ben and Tom during their first global adventure, and the boys at work

With the prospect of expected homeschooling looming for many Northern Ireland families, Susan Keenan (51) has found herself working overtime to reassure worried parents venting their fears on social media.

"Recently I've tried to dispel the myth that 'it's going to be terrible, what are we going to do?' I've said: 'Take it easy on yourself and take it easy on your kids'. It's not the end of the world," she says.

The east Belfast mum is now a dab hand at homeschooling after she and her husband Michael (50) took their sons Ben (14) and Tom (12) off on the road to go travelling in the Far East.

They've now taken the boys globetrotting during two different full academic years, once in primary school and once in secondary school, and were just on the point of enrolling them in mainstream school in Belfast once again after returning from Bali in February when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Now with schools closing, Susan has been reassuring other parents that they will be able to cope with taking on the task of teaching their children at home.

"Try to enjoy this time with your children - it's going to be a precious time," she says.

"It's a stressful time with employment and financial issues as well, but it's a very precious time. We do love it and we really cherish the memories we've been able to make with our children while we're doing this."

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Ben and Tom on their first trip working with a staff member at a villa they stayed at

Ben and Tom on their first trip working with a staff member at a villa they stayed at

Ben and Tom on their first trip working with a staff member at a villa they stayed at

The first time the family went travelling was a few years ago when the boys were in P5 and P6 at Strandtown PS in east Belfast, close to their home on the Belmont Road.

"Because we work online and we do web development as our job, that environment meant we were able to go away and it gave us the opportunity and time to homeschool our children," Susan says.

"The schools were fantastic. The first school the children attended was Strandtown and we had to formally withdraw the children from school and apply to get back in again.

"Then when Ben came back, he sat his AQE and he got a really good score. The second time the boys were both in Sullivan Upper and we had to withdraw them formally but we will be applying to get them back in again in September."

Thanks to her background in education, Susan was confident that she would be able to homeschool the boys.

"I did the traditional schooling route: Skegoneill PS, then the 11-plus and then I went to Ashleigh House School, and then I went into training to become a psychiatric nurse.

"When I left that role I joined my husband in his business. He had a nursery and was growing plants, so I worked with him for a while," she says.

After that she retrained as an essential skills tutor in numeracy: "I was teaching numeracy for young adults."

It was a big decision to take the boys out of P5 and P6 and embark on their adventure in the Far East, but by that stage the couple were working in web development and could work from anywhere in the world.

"We were working together and working online and we thought: 'We're in a brilliant position'. We didn't have any fear of not being able to teach the children," Susan says. "It was a difficult year as it was Ben's P6 year and we knew when he came back in September he would be doing his AQEs in November. But we felt we could do all the information and cover the curriculum but in a different environment."

The boys were thrilled with the adventure awaiting them, she says.

"My children would have been reasonably academic and they wouldn't have had any issues with writing or reading, attention or behaviour. They're two good children," she adds.

"I didn't think this is going to be a walk in the park because we are teaching our own children, but we found our own way of working with each other. Certainly I found we could do a lot of the work much more quickly, but we did it in a different way.

"For example, when we were in Bali, there was a volcano in front of where we were staying in Java, so we asked them to do a project on volcanoes and tsunamis and present it to us as a project," she adds.

They spent the first year travelling between Bali, Thailand, Singapore, Greece and Malaysia.

"We thought we could go and see different places, and live in a different environment. The kids learned a lot about different cultures," Susan says.

She admits not everyone would be able to stay with just family and no one else for 24 hours a day "but that suited us and I know it wouldn't suit everybody".

The second time round Ben was just going into Year 11 and would be studying for GCSEs the following year.

"We knew if we wanted to do it again, we would have to do it now," Susan says.

"So we took the kids out of school at the end of June last year and went away then in 2019. We were in Koh Samui in Thailand first of all, then we went to Bali, and we went to Vietnam and Malaysia."

The first time the boys went travelling they kept their own blog about their adventures and daily life.

"They had to write articles and put up photos. It was a really good way to keep in touch with their friends and their schools," Susan explains.

"Their friends were able to go online and check out what the blog said. It also had a homeschooling section on it about the things the children had done."

Susan and Michael set a daily schedule, but kept it fairly flexible.

"The children studied from Monday to Wednesday for three hours from 10am until 1pm, they would have had their timetable of things they needed to do," she says.

"But if they wanted to do something and we did it on a Tuesday, what's to say you can't work on a Sunday? We did work at weekends with the children. They were learning all the time and they had so many opportunities to learn different things."

At this stage, with the prospect of university starting to loom on the horizon, the family are focusing more on teaching the boys to be more independent.

Susan admits that on the most recent trip she felt like she was being mummy and doing everything for them, and now that they're home she's trying to promote more independence.

"They're 12 and 14 now and they need to become more independent. If they are going away to university, they will need to know things like budgeting, cleaning, cooking and meals, taking their bedclothes off and washing them," she says.

"They can cook a recipe now, they have to get the ingredients, cost the ingredients and cook a meal as well.

"These are things that we are trying to do now, but they still do their formal work - maths, English, and they look at documentaries for history and geography. They use BBC Bitesize; they use Duolingo for French, German and Spanish and they can speak to each other in those languages. They work together on some things and work alone on others."

But she warns parents planning their homeschooling schedule that it has to be fun as well.

"I think parents are getting caught up in the idea that it will need to become a school day, with six hours to do nine subjects in that way," she says.

"But I don't think that would realistically work for many parents or children, you're not trying to cater for 30 children of different abilities in classrooms. At this age, this is what I can do with my children in the time frame."

Now that the family are back in Northern Ireland, the homeschooling continues because of the coronavirus outbreak, but it's different from how it worked on their travels.

"It would be different. They would have gone to the gym because they're both quite sporty. They've stopped doing that now, but will be going to the park or going for a run. That's one of the other aspects of school life that we try to continue in a different way with exercises and keeping fit," Susan says.

"The formal schoolwork would be in the morning and in the afternoons we do different things. And the kids read too; it's such an important skill that we try to encourage in our children."

Another vital resource that parents can tap into while confined to home, she says, are Northern Ireland's public libraries, which offer online ebooks.

Susan admits she did feel a little nervous about taking Ben out of school the first time, with his AQEs ahead of him.

"It was a big responsibility in my head. I felt I really needed to be able to get Ben prepared for going back to school and sitting AQEs," she says.

"We didn't put any pressure on them to do AQEs, but Ben had a goal that he wanted to get into Sullivan and he knew it was a difficult school to get into.

"It was Ben's goal and he knew he needed to be able to put in the work to do it.

"Being in homeschooling for a year didn't seem to affect him.

"They are both well-rounded children and they've been all around the world. They can speak to adults, they're used to adults, far more than a lot of children. They didn't have that social community and they socialised more in adult company like us."

She admits the boys did miss their friends when they were away, but were able to keep in contact with tech like the XBox.

"They were lucky they had each other and they were close in age," she says.

"But with technology nowadays they can keep in touch, the only problem was the time difference.

"There are so many amazing apps that the children can use, so they're not missing out that way. There would have been social aspects of playing football and rugby, doing a sport, that they can't do now either."

In recent days Susan has taken to Facebook to reassure parents feeling daunted by the task ahead of them.

"I was going on Facebook and saying: 'Try and calm down, don't get too worked up'," she says.

"I want them to know they will manage and not to be too hard on themselves and not to be too hard on their children."

Susan adds: "Yes, we don't want them to fall behind, but they can and they will get through this - try and make it fun.

"Baking is a perfect example of a fun activity where you're using maths, English and science. If you bake buns or scones or something like that, you're using cross-curricular skills, incorporating lots of different things and you're doing something together as a family."

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