I’m homeschooling my four kids because life isn't just about exams

By Lisa Twang, Feb 05, 2020

Sabrina Salleh Quek’s children have never worn a school uniform, sung the national anthem at morning assembly, or queued for meals at the canteen. Trained as a preschool teacher, Sabrina homeschools her eldest three children (12-year-old Yael, ten-year-old Elisha, and six-year-old Ezra), while looking after her youngest daughter Eliana, who is two. 

Sabrina plans to homeschool her kids until they finish secondary school. Her eldest son, Yael, sat for his PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) last year.

We visited Sabrina and her family to ask why she’s chosen the homeschooling route, and how her kids will benefit from being taught at home, instead of a mainstream school.

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Hi, I’m Sabrina — I’m 38 and my family lives in a four-room HDB flat, which is also our ‘school’.

Left to right: Myself holding Eliana, Yael, Ezra and Elisha.

Left to right: Myself holding Eliana, Yael, Ezra and Elisha.

People don’t always understand why I chose to homeschool my kids. This includes my own family: my father is a teacher, and he was against the idea at first.

“Why do you want to homeschool when Singapore’s education system is so good?” my family said. I think they knew how much time and effort it would take to teach my kids on my own. 

I believe homeschooling works well for us, because it’s brought us closer as a family. Yael, Elisha, Ezra, Eliana, my husband and I spend so much time together, and it gives me joy to see the kids grow and develop under my wing. 

I like that homeschooling allows kids to learn at their own pace. In mainstream schools, kids may feel pressured to hit their academic milestones by a certain age and pass exams set for their cohort. But homeschooling allows them to learn as quickly, or slowly, as they need to.

With me, Yael learned to read by age four, and I also started teaching the kids science at that age through documentaries, books and comics. They’re also very good at art, because they’ve had lots of time and freedom to pursue it.

Part of the reason why I chose homeschooling is that I found the mainstream school system stressful with too many exams, and I didn’t want my kids to go through that.

In secondary school, I struggled to cope with nine subjects, along with the ups and downs of teen life. I remember feeling quite lonely, and anxious about my grades.

I didn’t do well enough for my O-Levels to qualify for the courses I wanted in polytechnic, so I retook some subjects as a private candidate. With my improved results, I enrolled in the Early Childhood Education diploma course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, to fulfill my childhood dream of being a teacher.

I’ve had about five years of formal teaching experience - as a preschool teacher and secondary school relief teacher. I also started NurtureWorks, a company that develops enrichment programmes for kids. 

After Yael was born, I became a homemaker, but I didn’t want to ‘waste’ my teaching skills. So I felt homeschooling would give me the perfect opportunity to teach and shape Yael in a home environment, and continue using my experience as a teacher. My husband, who is a learning and development manager, also agreed to homeschool our kids from the start, as he believed the two of us could do it effectively.

I applied to the Ministry of Education (MOE) for permission to homeschool Yael, submitting a curriculum plan and a detailed report. After a few appeals, my request was approved. Later, I went through the same application process with Elisha.

Our homeschool routine involves about three to four hours of lessons per day, which is sufficient for the kids.

Every morning, we wake up by 8am, have our breakfast, and start our school lessons by 9am.

I take turns teaching my three older kids English, maths, and science. They also learn Malay, my Mother Tongue which they’ve also adopted.

The others will do ‘seatwork’ (sitting down to work independently), or help to play with my youngest, Eliana.

We also do artwork (I specialise in art enrichment), so the kids can paint and express themselves.

A few times a week, we take nature walks to learn about science and get some exercise. We visit our garden plot in Hort Park, where we grow vegetables and herbs. 

In the evenings, my husband comes home from work and teaches the kids conversational Mandarin, his Mother Tongue, and maths. Having him share the teaching load with me really helps.

We also organise ‘co-ops’ with other homeschooled kids through our group, Homeschool Singapore, where the other mums and I take turns teaching three to five kids at a time. These usually happen once a week, and help my kids interact more with their peers, and learn from other homeschool mums who specialise in other subjects.

 

I always tell my kids that exams, like PSLE, are just another hurdle to cross. There is no need to stress too much about them. 

Yael just took his PSLE last year, and we prepared for it with mock exam papers, revision papers, and even a preliminary exam we organised with other homeschool mums. 

While we’re proud of Yael’s PSLE results, he didn’t meet the benchmark MOE has set specifically for homeschooled children, which is pegged at the 33rd percentile of all students taking four standard-level subjects in the PSLE of the same year. While Yael passed his PSLE, he has to re-take it this year to meet this benchmark. I was a little disappointed, and so was Yael. 

But we reminded ourselves that it’s okay if Yael takes a little more time to meet his PSLE requirements; the reason we homeschooled in the first place is so we can match his academic pace. As a homeschool mum, I’m more understanding of my kids’ different abilities. 

Failure is part and parcel of growing up and life, and I just encourage Yael to do better on his next round. I also believe the experience will teach him perseverance and maturity. Better results on a second try (like with my O-Levels) mean better or more options for tertiary courses, so I’m not worried about how it might look on my kids’ resumes if they retake exams.

Yael is preparing to re-take his PSLE this year, and is confident that he will get through this time because he knows which tricky areas to focus on, like problem sums. He’s also started studying for Secondary 1, so he can get an early start on what he needs to learn next year. 

 

Mainstream schools tend to focus on academics and textbook learning. But I also want my kids to learn through real-life application.

I always wondered, “Why must we learn so much through textbooks, which can be so dry and boring?” I feel real-life, hands-on learning is more meaningful and fun, and should be done daily.  

With hands-on learning, kids are also encouraged to ask questions and find out answers on their own, and this cultivates a positive learning attitude. I want my kids to learn because they want to, and not just to score high marks in exams.  
Elisha is now learning about money, and on school days, we buy things at the shops and count our change. To learn about fractions or measurements, we'll bake a cake or cookies at home and measure out the ingredients.

Learning about maths and science through cooking.

Learning about maths and science through cooking.

While my kids still do daily seatwork with math practice and writing worksheets, I think hands-on lessons are a good addition to that.

With homeschooling, my kids also suggest topics they want to learn about, like birds or dinosaurs. I like to encourage their sense of curiosity, and I plan lessons based on what they’re interested in, because we can be flexible that way.

People tend to think homeschool kids can be too sheltered, and don’t know how to socialise.

But my kids still play with our neighbours’ children, do co-op lessons, and take enrichment classes with kids their age (Yael has taken up soccer and Elisha, ballet). 

I’ve been told by other parents that my children are mature, have real-world problem-solving skills, and can interact confidently with their peers and adults. We’ve done projects that involved the bigger homeschooling community, with kids of different ages and adults. They’ve learned videography and photography, coding and animation, and made and sold craft work. 

Having a flexible schedule is another benefit of homeschooling. Because we don’t have school holidays, almost every weekday is a school day. If the kids have to miss lessons because they’re sick or something comes up at the last minute, it’s ok because we can always catch up later, like on weekends. We can also take short trips to Malaysia during off-peak seasons about once a year. 

Our family trip to Malacca last year, which we took when my husband cleared some annual leave.

Our family trip to Malacca last year, which we took when my husband cleared some annual leave.

I’ve definitely struggled with short bouts of self-doubt and worry that I couldn’t cope with the workload of homeschooling.

I’ve had very busy seasons, like when I juggled homeschooling with running my NurtureWorks studio part-time for two years. Though I had a helper then, I also assisted with homeschool events, taught in co-ops, and managed daily homeschooling and our household.

I sometimes ask myself: “Why did I commit so much?”, and feel completely burned out.

I decided to close the studio, to focus completely on homeschooling again. Now I run my business passively from home, and while it means less income, I also have a smaller, more manageable workload. 

Later, I had a difficult pregnancy with Eliana and had to rest a lot, so I didn't get as much work done with the others. After she was born, it was hectic to care for Eliana while teaching my three other kids. I'd have to sit them all down together, and teach them while breastfeeding Eliana. 

Things are better now that Eliana is no longer a baby, and can play independently for short periods of time. I’ve also become better at asking for help: I’ve realised that having a good family support system really helps in the homeschool journey.  

I’ve asked my husband, Yael and Elisha to chip in more for chores, so I have more time to rest. 

My mum cooks for me on weekends, and helps babysit Eliana sometimes. I’m also taking care of myself more: unwinding with a K-drama or Netflix movie, and doing brisk morning walks twice a week. 

I’ve been asked if by homeschooling my kids, I’ve prepared them well enough to face stress and competition in the future.

I believe the good learning attitudes my kids have picked up will serve them well. Homeschoolers tend to be more used to hands-on learning and are very adaptable, so I think they’ll cope well in polytechnic and the workforce. 

I also think they’ll be more mature when they graduate from homeschooling, and be able to adapt to a more competitive environment. They are confident, know when to ask for help, and take initiative because they’re used to studying independently. 

I don’t know if all my kids will continue to be homeschooled with me through secondary school. They’ve asked why they don’t go to mainstream school like other children, but they’ve accepted that we decided to homeschool to give them a better learning environment.

 Maybe when they’re older, they’ll wish to go to mainstream schools, like most kids their age. But for now, I’m enjoying the time I have with them. 

It’s not always been easy being a homeschool mum: our family has made some sacrifices along the way. But I feel homeschooling has made my kids more well-rounded, helped them to think more critically, and taught them to enjoy learning outside of books and exam papers. 

It’s hard work but it’s worth the effort, and I feel blessed to be my kids’ mother and their teacher, too.

Pictures provided by Sabrina Salleh Quek and Lisa Twang.

For more on homeschooling, you can reach out to Homeschool Singapore at https://www.facebook.com/Homeschoolsingaporesg/.

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