FIVE-year-old Abdul is a small and sensitive boy. From when he was a toddler his parents worried about how he would fare in a classroom full of rowdy kindergarteners, let alone a school playground. Devout Muslims, they also wanted their son's schooling to reflect their religious beliefs. So Abdul's mother decided to teach him herself.
Abdul sits at the dining table in their three-bedroom house in Sydney's Bass Hill, surrounded by piles of books from the library, sounding out words from Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. Next he goes exploring in the garden and finds a stick insect, then logs on to the computer to Google stick insects and their habits. Later he'll attend a neighbourhood karate class or his weekly swimming lesson. His mother Amar now can't imagine sending him to school.
"He can be quite shy, he's a bit like me, he's going to do things in his own time," she says. "If your child doesn't fit into the mould, if your child is a little bit different they can't cater for them (at school). It's a set curriculum, the teachers have to get through A, B, C and D, (whereas) I can see what his strengths and weaknesses are and concentrate on that."
Amid the controversy over Islamic schools in Australia and fierce debate over religious v secular schooling, increasing numbers of Muslim families are choosing a third and no less controversial alternative: home schooling.
"It is very much growing in the Muslim community, it's been one of the busiest years I can remember," says Mujahidah Flint, who founded the Muslim Home Education Network 10 years ago. She says she knows at least 100 families in NSW who have opted to educate their children at home, and this year she's had inquiries from another 40, about half of whom have gone ahead. She recently launched an online forum where home-schooling families swap information and advice.
"Every family's different, they all home school for different reasons," Flint says. "Islamic reasons, academic reasons, maybe they're going overseas and want their children to have more Arabic.
"Many are just dissatisfied with the school system in general, or maybe their child has a disability and the school is not able to cater for the needs of their child."
A New Zealand-born Muslim convert, Flint is a former marketing executive and has a BA in English. She drives a black Audi convertible sports car, which matches her black hijab. "I'm a businesswoman: they used to say I could sell sand to the Arabs," she says.
Twelve years ago Flint decided to shelve her career to become the teacher of her two daughters, Aleah and Tahirrah, then aged six and four. She was unimpressed by the Australian education system and wanted her children to learn the phonics method of reading rather than the whole-word approach used in most Australian schools. She also wanted their faith to be foremost.
"I wanted my children to have a very strong Islamic identity and a more well-rounded, worldly education. My intention was to give them an individualised education, as opposed to an institutionalised one."
Flint tapped into an established network of Christians who were home-schooling their children, and liked what she saw.
"I found they were very well-educated, well-mannered, had very close family ties, a very strong sense of identity and strong religious beliefs, and I wanted that for my children."
She obtained books and resources from the US, where more than 1 million children are taught at home, and embarked on her new career as a teacher.
"Initially you try to replicate the school environment at home," she says. "I got the whiteboard, desks, rulers, books. I used to do it from nine to three and take the phone off the hook.
"That lasted about six months, until I found that life got in the way and I realised that life is part of education too, and that I didn't want to replicate the school environment. Home schooling is definitely not school at home."
Aleah and Tahirrah, now aged 18 and 16, completed their schooling at 14. Today, they are articulate, outgoing and impeccably mannered young women. Both are now studying childcare in order to get a qualification.
Tahirrah has an online photography business and hopes to become a photo-journalist, while Aleah is content to do voluntary community work before marrying and having children. The two girls are enthusiastic advocates of home schooling.
"I loved it. It was fun, it wasn't boring," says Aleah. "The way that schools educate is not the only way that people can learn. Our whole life was really learning all the time."
She remembers doing lessons in the park, and on hot summer days finishing their schoolwork in the morning and being allowed to spend the rest of the day in the pool. The advantages were "getting to be with my mum, getting to know my mum, being a closer family; we have a much closer family bond. Education-wise, pursuing your own interests, being able to travel, it's so much more free. You have a life with home-schooling".
The home-schooling movement began in the 1960s and 70s as an anti-establishment phenomenon. Esther Lacoba, president of the Home Education Association of Australia, says: "The attitude (then) was 'why should my child be institutionalised in a school? I don't want my child to just be a number. Children deserve better than that'."
It had a new spurt in the 80s inspired by the burgeoning Christian home education movement in the US. Seventy-five per cent of US home-schoolers are Christians, but the Muslim sector is estimated to be doubling every year. Lacoba says the trend is mirrored here, although the numbers are much smaller.
"People of various faiths believe the secular school system is not good for their children," she says. "Quite a few Muslims are members of the HEA; it's definitely growing, Muslim and non-Muslim."
The precise numbers of Australian children being taught at home are unclear. In 2007, the HEA held a series of conferences across the country, attended by more than 1200 home-schooling families.
The NSW Board of Studies says just over 2000 students are registered for home-schooling in NSW. Lacoba believes the real figure is double that as many families don't register, although they are required by law to do so. Flint believes the number nationwide may be as high as 20,000.
The regulations differ from state to state. Typically home-schoolers must adhere to the key subject areas in the state curriculum, follow a teaching plan, keep detailed records, and monitor the achievements and progress of students. Beyond that, it's up to them.
"Home-schooled kids do loads more than what they're taught at school," says Flint. "They basically finish the entire school curriculum by the age of 13 or 14. You're not restricted by the curriculum, you can let them excel."
Professional educators, however, take a much dimmer view. The Australian Education Union opposes home schooling, which it describes as "inconsistent with the philosophy and importance of schooling itself".
"Schooling is a very important socialising agent, the socialising is just as important as the learning," says AEU president, Angelo Gavrielatos. "It's about students learning together and, just as importantly, learning to live together."
He says the trend in the Muslim community is "a cause for further concern, given the types of enclaves that can generate".
"Schooling aims to break down segregation. Education should ameliorate rather than exacerbate social divisions," Gavrielatos says.
"If we're on about the development of a genuinely socially cohesive society, any move that acts against that should at least be questioned. When we start to enter the realm of educating along ethno-religious lines, that should ring some serious alarm bells for us as a society."
Home schoolers are accustomed to the persistent questions. How can you teach if you're not a qualified teacher? How can you help your kids master subjects that you struggle with yourself? What about their socialisation? How can you stand to be around your children 24 hours a day?
Flint has answers ready. "Home schooling is really about giving parents choices. This is a legal option; it is very much about a parent's right to choose what education method the parent wants for their child.
"You don't necessarily have to have a teaching diploma in order to teach your children. You rely on friends. If you're not great at one thing you find someone else who is. You trade: 'OK, you teach my kids maths and I'll teach your kids English'."
She says there's no evidence that home-schooled kids are disadvantaged. "We find that people who do home schooling and then put their children back into school, their children are often scholastically ahead of other children."
Lacoba agrees. "My experience is that kids who are home educated have a different work ethic, because when you're in a group of 25 kids at school, you're going through the motions.
"Home-schooled kids are choosing what they're learning so they're engaged with it. By the time they hit adulthood they really know how to find what interests them and seek it out."
Their confidence is supported by overseas research. A senior research analyst with the US Department of Education, Patricia M. Lines, writes in an article posted on pro-home schooling websites: "Research has not found that home schooling harms children's social or psychological development. On the contrary, these children often demonstrate better social adjustment than their traditionally schooled peers."
A 2002 study by the University of Durham in northern England found that home-educated children had "high levels of attainment and good social skills", "benefited from parental attention and the freedom to develop their skills at their own pace", and that their "families enjoyed strong bonds and parents were committed to providing a nurturing environment for their children".
Abdul's mother, Amar, says for her it's about putting her family first. "I don't know how people who send their children to school have time to have a life. With all the extra-curricular activity, if I had my son in school there would be no time left for family time, and that's really important to us."
Speaking from experience, 18-year-old Aleah shakes her head emphatically when asked whether she sees any disadvantages. "No way. I loved home-schooling. I will do the same thing with my kids and I hope they'll do the same thing with their kids."