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12th October 2007 at 01:00
Home schooling in the US is boosted by virtual academies with teacher and government support

TUCKED AWAY on an affluent residential street in suburban Los Angeles, Rita Farin's family home is an unlikely looking school.

However, with just two pupils both her own children Mrs Farin is taking part in a revolution in American home schooling.

More than 5,000 children are now enrolled in the California Virtual Academies (Cava), a system that provides the freedom of traditional home schooling coupled with the support of a regular school.

Comparable systems, such as Notschool.net, exist in the UK but cater for smaller numbers. In the United States, more than 26,000 children are enrolled in Cava and similar systems. Pupils are educated at home by their parents but use a computer, books and curriculum all paid for by public funding. A qualified teacher is available all day on the telephone to answer any questions that arise and to teach optional lessons over the internet.

There are also regular meetings between parents, teachers and pupils to discuss progress and take part in extra-curricular trips and sport with other children.

"When my son started kindergarten, it became clear that teachers spent more time disciplining than educating," said Mrs Farin.

"I did not want to take on home schooling per se, as I'm not a teacher. I needed the package to go with it and since starting this I have never doubted it. It's the perfect balance."

The number of children being taught at home in the USA has grown rapidly over the past 25 years, from an estimated 50,000 in 1982 to 2.2 million this year.

In England it is believed that about 150,000 children are home-educated, although figures are not exact as families do not have to notify their local authorities.

Ministers in the UK have rejected calls by organisations such as the National Foundation for Educational Research to provide state funding to parents who decide to educate their children at home. Jim Knight, the schools minister, said: "We believe that school is the best place for the vast majority of children and therefore government funding is devoted to maintaining the state school system."

However, the education that Cava provides for children in America is free and entirely public-funded. This is because the virtual schools in the Californian network, which started five years ago, operate as charter schools, the US equivalent of England's quasi-independent academies.

"Our pupils and parents get everything they need, including their internet connection, and they don't have to pay a dime for it because it's all funded by tax dollars," said Lisa Gillis, a spokeswoman for Cava.

The Californian academies employ 290 teachers who work from home, each supporting a "class" of a maximum of 25 pupils who live in their area.

All pupils are taught the same curriculum but they are able to follow it at their own pace. It involves regular assessments, which can be monitored by teachers.

Parents have to commit to at least 4.5 hours of teaching time each school day before they are allowed to enrol their children, although the time can be shared with grandparents or other adults.

The parents do not need to have achieved any minimum education qualifications of their own in order to take part.

Teachers and pupils meet at least five times a year for progress checks and writing assessments. Pupils also have to take part in national tests, producing very similar results regardless of where they live.

"The system allows us much more freedom," said Mrs Farin. "LA is a great place, with so much on offer for my children's education, and we have time to explore that.

"In regular school, children worry about being seen as cool rather than appreciating what they're learning."

Mrs Farin's children, Heinrich, 12, and Katja, 10, agree.

"I'm happy learning this way," said Heinrich. "I don't feel like I'm missing out at all. The school organises lots of social events, so we meet lots of other children."

Virtual academies are giving parents more options for their children's education, said Ms Gillis.

They also allow flexibility with regard to travel. Pupils have logged on to do lessons when they have been in Japan, South America and Europe. "Our school is a school of choice, and that keeps us on our toes," said Ms Gillis. "We know it's competitive, so we do what's right for our students."

WATCHING AMERICA

Teachers TV has been screening a series of programmes about the American education system. The programmes include looking at who controls schools, the role of private businesses and attempts to improve social mobility for disadvantaged children. All can be downloaded from www.teachers.tv

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