Homeschooling In Singapore: Ex-Lawyer Karen Ong-Tan On How She Knew It Was The Right Choice
For former lawyer Karen Ong-Tan, homeschooling seven-year-old Kara was something that happened organically. It was also a decision that she and husband, Samuel Tan—who manages personal and family investments, felt very strongly about.
“This path of homeschooling resonated with us as it allowed for more shared family experiences, and helped us fulfil our responsibility as parents to impart good values to her, especially at an age when children face increasing amounts of outside stimulation,” explains Karen. “This is also the time of Kara’s life where both of us, and her grandparents, are still able and mobile—allowing us to share a wider range for experiences together, including more physical activities such as hiking and travelling.”
Being a full-time mum and primary caregiver accords Karen a lot of precious one-to-one time with her only child, which is one of the pull factors for many parents who choose to homeschool their kids. “I’m at a stage of my life where I’m not only excited, but also fortunate to have the opportunity to rearrange my commitments to make time for our little one during the precious early years. I’m also blessed to be able to do so because of the love and support of my husband,” she attests.
Judging by Kara’s bubbly personality, boundless energy, heightened confidence and unbridled enthusiasm (just like Mum!), we see the profound effect homeschooling has had on this talkative little Miss. “Kara has always been a vivacious and fiercely independent little girl with an infectious passion for learning, so teaching her brings us lots of joy,” says Karen. “We’re surprised when she started reading and writing confidently and independently by three, and that has proved to be a milestone that has shaped our little journey.”
We ask Kara if she has any subject she doesn’t like, and she quips without missing a beat, “No.” Not even Mandarin? “I enjoy it very much!” she replies in an almost Queen’s English accent, then marches off wearing Mummy’s heels despite Karen telling her not to do so.
The moment of realisation for me when was Kara was about six, when overnight, she developed this raging hunger for knowledge which prompted more co-learning. That motivated me to learn more and accelerate her teaching.
How it all began
Instead of enrolling her daughter into preschool, Karen wanted to fully experience the joys of motherhood by being the main provider of Kara’s mental and emotional needs. She planned a home curriculum not based on any particular pedagogy, but one with a strong child-led focus that resembled a typical day at school.
“Early mornings would be spent with some outdoor play and exploration, followed by learning and discovery projects, and tasks at home. Afternoons were set aside for naps, playdates and outings with different groups of friends,” Karen details.
After seeing tremendous growth and development, it seemed only natural for Kara to continue her homeschooling journey in her primary years. “My friends, who send their kids to regular school, were the ones that encouraged me to homeschool Kara after noticing how much I loved guiding her all through preschool,” Karen reveals.
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Working with the Ministry of Education
In order to embark on a homeschool journey at primary level, Karen and Samuel went through the rigorous process of applying for Compulsory Education exemption from the Ministry of Education (MOE). This entailed providing various educational certificates of the parent who would be doing the homeschooling, an outline of the curricula, as well as a proposed weekly timetable. Karen is also required to submit a yearly report on Kara’s progress to the MOE. In addition, an MOE officer will pay the parents a home visit to conduct an interview, discuss curriculum details and check that the child has a suitable learning environment. The visit also includes an informal chat with the child.
Just like school-going kids, homeschooled children will need to sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in four subjects (English, Second Language, Mathematics and Science). Before that, homeschoolers also have to sit for an additional exam in Primary 4, which assesses if they are academically on par with their peers from regular schools.
Some parents choose to go with their own curriculum for the first few years of primary education, and take one year to prepare their kids for the PSLE, but Karen has chosen to stick to the syllabus from the start, as she personally identifies with the pedagogical principles and curated range of topics.
“To witness first-hand and play a part helping a little human learn about life, the world and most importantly, herself—literally from scratch—is simply magical, and we feel privileged that the MOE has allowed us to continue to do so.”
A day in the life of Kara Tan
The prospect of being a child’s only teacher can be intimidating, but the potential pay-offs are worth the gamble. One of the best things about homeschooling (apart from not having to wake up at 5.30am every day) is that you may be able to get teaching done in under five hours, where traditional schools require seven to eight. That means, more time for your child to pursue his or her own hobbies and interests. In Kara’s case, this currently includes reading up on dinosaurs, Star Wars, My Little Pony, Transformers, sharks, and exploring music, floral arrangement, sewing, and baking!
A typical day for Kara would start with bible study, followed by critical reading of newspapers and chosen articles, and having discussions about current affairs. Academic teaching is managed through punchy lessons and reinforced throughout the day, totalling about five hours.
There are also empty pockets of time that Karen calls “white space”, when Kara is given the freedom to play and indulge in exploring non-syllabus subjects and matters. “For example, after watching Captain Marvel with her photon blast powers, it was a great introduction to photons, their role in the harnessing of solar energy through the mechanics of solar panels and in turn, a discussion on the feasibility of solar power in our global struggle to convert to using more sustainable energy sources,” expounds Karen excitedly.
I’ve never considered this work. Teaching is all about the person you’re guiding, and I genuinely enjoy it because I’m with my favourite person!
— Karen Ong-Tan
If there’s anything Karen is guilty of as an educator, it’s over-teaching. “Some days when we start talking about a topic, say atoms for example, it develops into to a full-blown seminar from discussing about density, the conduction of heat and sound energy, the changes between the states of matter, to also human and economic history. It goes on and on, and before we know it, it’s the end of the school day!” laughs Karen.
Although Kara is not allowed any independent screen time (other than Monday movie nights with the family), she gets to watch YouTube videos for certain subjects like geography, which Karen finds is best conveyed through moving visual media. They also do a wide variety of physical and project-based activities, which include reading and research on any area of interest, creative writing, role play, drawing and painting, experiments, trips to parks, museums, and more.
Afternoons and evenings are reserved for playtime with Kara’s friends when they return from school, and after-dinner is family time at home. Then it’s prayers, reflections and thanksgiving before bed.
Karen's school prep
“After Kara’s gone to bed, it’s time with hubby, and then it’s back to ‘work’ for me. This involves reviewing our progress for the day, comparing it against my weekly and monthly plans, and making adjustments where appropriate. I also spend time researching topics and curating suitable material, which includes vetting all the books and articles that I present Kara with before she gets to read them.
I often customise and hand-make material myself when I find it most effective to convey certain concepts and lessons,” Karen details. She estimates she spends on average around 20 hours of review, research and prep time each week.
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What about enrichment classes?
Although Karen takes primary responsibility for the day-to-day teachings, she is not opposed to signing her daughter up for enrichment classes. Currently, Kara attends parkour, Mandarin public speaking, and a Mandarin class with a group of fellow homeschoolers. There are also plans to teach her German later this year.
When subjects prove a little more challenging in the later years, Karen is not averse to the idea of tuition. “I plan to remain the key person teaching all of the PSLE syllabus, however, I expect that she would enjoy and find it helpful to practise and prepare for the PSLE together with friends in a group setting,” she says.
Dad is not left out of the picture; he helps in the non-academic aspects of Kara’s development like sports, literature and current affairs. “All three of us enjoy learning and, through our journey with Kara, Sam and I discovered that we have a passion for coaching and playing!
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A strong network and support system
MOE reports that there are 50 Singaporean homeschooled children every cohort per year. Homeschooling parents say their community is diverse and includes people of different races and religions, locals and expatriates. And the children are as varied as they come—from special needs to gifted learners, musical or sport prodigies, and more.
“I’ve discovered that there is such an amazingly wide and diverse range of groups within the homeschooling community in Singapore. They continue to inspire me with their courage in taking the less beaten path and choosing what they believe works best for their kids and their families,” enthuses Karen.
“Kara loves and respects her different groups of friends within the various local, expat and homeschooling communities, and has a best friend with whom she shares many similar interests.” During get-togethers, whether it’s with homeschooling parents or her other groups of friends, Karen says it’s common for the parents to share their experiences and resources freely with one another.
To witness first-hand and play a part helping a little human learn about life, the world and most importantly, herself—literally from scratch—is simply magical.
— Karen Ong-Tan
Contrary to popular belief, homeschooled children do not grow up isolated or sheltered, and are hardly introverted. Kara, who has plenty of time to just be a kid and run riot with her best friends at indoor playgrounds, is a prime example. “Play is our modus operandi. These large pockets of free time hold some of the best memories that Sam and I carry from our own childhoods,” says Karen.
Push and pull factors
There are many reasons why parents choose to homeschool their kids: Some feel the teaching style of formal schools don’t cater to faster or slower learners and stifle those who are creatively-inclined. Learning also happens better in shorter periods when motivation and interest levels peak, rather than long stretches of back-to-back classes. It also accords parents the flexibility to tailor their own goals for learning with enough time to add character building, life skills and religious values.
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However, there are many downsides to being unschooled: not having a common base level of education or regimented structure, shared peer experiences, extra-curricular activities, and lack of resources.
“Kara can’t have the same experiences for sure, but a majority of her friends are school-going kids whom she’s grown up with, so she’s developed a sense of comradery in that respect,” Karen adds.
Homeschooling is no easy feat, even for the most academically-inclined of parents. “I think that the most obvious challenge for any full-time mum would be wearing and balancing the different hats as primary caregiver and main educator. This requires me to concurrently keep one finger on the pulse of her developments in interests, learning and growing process; another on her physical and emotional development and wellbeing; and another to plan, prepare and execute daily lessons,” she lists.
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After PSLE, will Kara continue being homeschooled? Her parents are taking it slow in this decision. “We’re granted an exemption by the MOE for the next six years, by the end of which, we recognise that Kara’s needs and interests will necessarily have changed and developed. We’ve resolved to keep our minds and options open with regards to formal schooling at higher levels. Regardless of what the path she may pick, Sam and I will continue to choose to give her our time and energy and walk with her every step of the way,” she concludes.
Is homeschooling for your child?
First understand your child’s personality, interests and style of learning. For example, does he or she prefer the structure and discipline of a routine-based school environment, or can he or she handle time management efficiently?
Next, ask yourself if you have the aptitude and attitude to be an educator. “The moment of realisation for me when was Kara was about six, when overnight, she developed this raging hunger for knowledge which prompted more co-learning. That motivated me to learn more and accelerate her teaching. In turn, it helped me grow in confidence knowing that I could actually take on primary school,” reveals Karen.
While travel has taken a temporary backseat this year, Karen really enjoys this high-intensity relationship with her daughter, “I’ve never considered this work. Teaching is all about the person you’re teaching, and I genuinely enjoy it because I’m with my favourite person!”
- Photography Darren Gabriel Leow
- Art Direction Matilda Au
- Producer Daphne Chen-Cordeiro
- Styling Joey Tan
- Photographer's Assistant Yann
- Hair Chris Siow, using Revlon Professional
- Make-Up Chris Siow, using NARS Cosmetics