The number of children in Northern Ireland being homeschooled has risen by almost 180% over the past five years, it has emerged.
Around 800 school-age children are being educated at home this academic year, which draws to a close this week, according to figures from the Education Authority (EA).
That’s a huge increase from the figure of 287 across primary and post-primary schools just five years ago.
The biggest rise has been in the past two years and is thought to have been the result of Covid-19 lockdowns, which saw many children being educated at home.
The number of children learning at home more than doubled from 155 in 2019/20 to 329 this year.
But the number had already been rising steadily in recent years. In 2017/18, 116 primary school-age children and 171 post-primary pupils were kept out of school.
The total number now is around 800, with parents only required to notify the Education Authority if their child has previously attended school or has a statement of special educational needs.
The Covid pandemic saw a huge rise in material being made available online for parents as children were forced to move to online learning, making it easier for them to become more involved in their child’s education.
But throughout the periods of school closures, the Department of Education maintained that getting children back into school was a priority as it was “the best place for children to be”. Many critics of homeschooling suggest children who are kept away from traditional schools miss out on the social aspect of life they have to offer.
Children in the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area are the most likely to be schooled at home. During the last academic year, 98 were recorded as being home-educated.
In the Belfast area, meanwhile, 96 were being educated in a similar fashion.
Children in years 11 and 12 (fourth form and fifth form) were the most likely to study at home, with 117 fourth-years and 112 fifth-years being taken out of the classroom. Again, those numbers have seen a big increase, almost doubling in the past five years.
NI Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma said she has been aware of the rise in children and young people being educated at home both before and since the pandemic.
She said the EA needs to develop a register of where and how children are being educated to ensure no child is being left behind.
“In my advice on the Education Authority’s Revised Guidelines for Elective Home Education in August 2019, we were clear that the state’s responsibility to the education of children is not only confined to schools, but wherever children are being educated, including in their home,” she said.
“A principle call was that there should be a record of where every child of school age is being educated and that they are making the progress that is commensurate with their age.
“It is also important that monitoring processes are in place and these are undertaken in an appropriate and timely manner.
“The increasing numbers of deregistered children, added to the unknown numbers of never registered, makes our calls even more relevant today in the light of these figures.”
The commissioner said her advice, given to the EA in 2019, still stands.
“The EA should seek to make contact with parents considering deregistration as early as possible to determine whether the decision is being precipitated by failures in the provision to their children. In these cases the EA should seek to address any complaints and compile information on the reasons for deregistration.”
She added that there should be a legal requirement for all home-educated children to be registered with the EA, and a statutory duty placed on the EA to confirm on an annual basis that they are receiving an effective education, while parents should be required to provide information to support this assessment.
Parents in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, legally have a right to educate their children at home, under the legal obligation to make sure that the child receives a full-time education from age four to 16.
However, there is no obligation for homeschooled children to follow the Northern Ireland curriculum or enter national tests.
Parents or guardians also do not need to be a qualified teacher, according to the EA website.
Education authorities across Northern Ireland retain the right to conduct annual home visits to give advice on a child’s progression.
If it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education, the EA might serve a school-attendance order. It can also provide guidance to parents.