When in January 2020 I first heard about a virus sweeping through China, I rolled into a big branded pharmacy and bought the last 2 remaining anti-viral hand-sanitiser. These types of items were already flying off the shelves. Those of us purchasing at that time would most likely be the ones preparing for a pandemic, we at best guessed the virus would be here very soon, and at the worst, hoping it wasn’t already. I am an able single mother who happens to use wheels instead of my legs, with a handful of pre-existing conditions and a history of pneumonia and sepsis; I have to be prepared. I’d got this!
Fast forward 4+ months and I’m lucky enough to be sitting in my garden watching my chickens potter around in 25degree sunshine. Yes, I am one of those few million people having to shield from the world, but I am also extremely grateful that I live with more than my fair share of grass, garden, and woodland; enough for my 4 children to disappear all day and never meet another soul in passing. I chose this property because I also home educate my 4 children and outdoor space for learning is essential for our educational ideology. My background as a Principal Lecturer and Educational Leader started with Early Years and Primary Schooling, I hold all 4 teaching certificates and train teachers as well as nursery leaders, childminders, and school staff. Despite my training plus my practical experience of over 20 years, I still stumbled with our new home learning a few times when lockdown began. Even for experienced home educators, the lockdown of 2020 has taken a while to get used to. No field trips, no extra curricula classes, no more leaving the property.
I follow several individuals on Instagram, take part in some Facebook groups and do small consultations when asked to do so, and I cannot help but feel empathy for the millions of parents who have desperately attempted to continue their children’s education from home without training, without very much guidance and occasionally without any support from their child’s school. I mean, let’s face it, we do not train our teachers in basic brain development let alone training them in how to support parents in the home environment during a global pandemic! Teachers have been thrown in at the deep end with many hundreds managing to teach face to face online; our parents have been thrown in even deeper, with many thousands managing to maintain something resembling school from home.
In the first few days of lockdown, parents were asking for help online for things such as “How do I create a timetable?” and “How many subjects should I cover in one day?”. There were videos of families who still got children out of bed at 7 am to ensure ‘classes’ could start promptly at 9 am. Some families posted images of their meticulously drawn timetable for each morning, afternoon and day of the week; no one would be allowed to end the day before 3 and after school activities were replaced by PE in the garden. Before the week was out more parents were posting questions such as “How long should a math’s lesson be?” and “Can lunch be longer than a hour?”. By the beginning of week 2 posts were noticeably different in content and tone with parents asking “Would it be terrible if we just did a 3-day school week?” and “How do I juggle my 2yr old and my 7yr old when they need to learn completely different things?”.
I empathized immensely with all the parents who showed such resilience and determination when it came to the education of their children during a time we were unprepared for, and completely in shock because of COVID-19. I wasn’t however shocked when posts started to come through by the end of week 2 which highlighted just how much burnout parents were beginning to feel: “I give up!”, “That’s all folks! School has been put on a shelf”, “I Quit!”, “I have a newfound respect for teachers, we are on holiday early!”, “I’m not a teacher, I can’t do this!”. I don’t think any parent started lockdown thinking that education from home would be easy, maybe just easier. Not only has the lockdown offered parents insight into exactly what it is that is being taught to their children (evident in posts such as “Why are they teaching my 6 year-old what a noun phrase is?”) but parents are also left wondering why they can get through most of the school work in 2-3hrs – “What do they fill the remaining 3hrs with?”. Parents have in the main, left schooling up to school teachers, “They know best”, however, the lockdown for some parents has been life-altering. The pressure felt in school by some children has led to an epidemic in mental health concerns for children as young as 4. Parents are seeing this first-hand now that they are acting teachers. Parents are also observing the constraints put on a child who is being asked to undertake formal learning, correction, and development for 6 hours (7-8hrs in some places) every day. The parental response has been to start asking different questions as we move towards the 3rd the month of lockdown and restrictions. Questions such as “Can I carry on with home-schooling and not send them back?” and “Is there a difference between home-schooling and home education?” plus statements such as “I can’t believe how different he/she is! School is a thing of the past for us”. Where once parents felt that school was the one and the only option for education, now anecdotal evidence suggests that parents are debating whether or not to return their children to a system that hasn’t been updated since Queen Victoria was on the throne.
We must acknowledge that the background of a child’s primary carer has a significant impact on how ‘successful’ home-learning has been during the lockdown period. Dip your toe into some research undertaken around home education that occurred before lockdown and you do not have to go very far before realising a significant portion of the participants in that research were from a white, middle-class, predominantly female demographic; that is to say, even where a primary carer did not hold a degree or any engagement with higher education, they were still from a relatively affluent background. We know that these families take a greater interest in their children’s education, and we also know that these families are more willing to take a risk when it comes to our current system of education and their ability to do better. One parent of now grown children simply repeats “I wish I had known it was an option when I had N”. One area of home-based learning that remains under-researched is that of the transference of cultural capital from children to their parents. Many online comments and questions are posted by young, single mothers and families who have relocated to the UK in recent years. Whilst my research is ongoing, there is already anecdotal evidence that through the teaching of their children, parents and carers are making huge strides with their knowledge, learning, and understanding; arguably the cultural capital within the home could increase through the adoption of Home Education. It is likely, however, that to ensure this increase occurs, parents and carers forced into home learning during the lockdown, would need to persevere; they would need to see their child’s education as so valuable that individual parents and carers would need to source additional resources and teach themselves before teaching their children. The acquisition of new knowledge for adults who struggled themselves in schools is by no means a small task. For many, they would need to acknowledge their struggles with past schooling and move beyond any negative responses to acquire the new knowledge to then teach their child. This is a gigantic task for some.
For those of us who have been fighting to retain the right to educate our children from somewhere other than a school building, we have seen the biggest rise in online activities, including curriculum and BBC content since the internet began. The quality of resources is at an all-time high and some of us have been left to wonder why we couldn’t have had this level of support before a global pandemic brought our schools to their knees. Now that the Government have themselves demonstrated that education at home is a viable alternative to the school buildings, maybe Home Education can be included as a valid alternative to mainstream schooling in the same way that independent schooling, boarding schooling, Forest Schooling, and Montessori are seen as valid alternatives. At the very least it would be difficult for ministers to completely disregard education from home after this pandemic is over.
Since formal schooling became popular in the late 19th century we have not had an opportunity to research education in the home environment to the extent that we could be doing right now. Home education groups are justifiably cautious when asked to participate in research, however, we have millions of families across the UK who have home educated for the past few months, many of whom want to continue until September and many who are considering home education permanently. As a researcher looking at the value of education at home and how home education might impact a family’s education capital, I cannot help but watch the educational briefings with disappointment; surely as we send our children into schools in ‘bubbles’ of 6-8 children, as we re-organise the school day on a rota basis, halve the time spent in the school building and whilst there are calls to educate children outside to reduce risk, why haven’t we just taken this opportunity to restructure our outdated Victorian system of education? Why do we ever need to go back to a system that was originally designed to fill gaps in our industrial workforce and post-war economy?
If home education was sufficient for 3 months and then part-time schooling and blended learning is sufficient going forward, can we not keep our small class sizes and reduced hours (advocated by hundreds of educational researchers)? Can we not use this unique point in history to improve our system to the benefit of the next generation who will be the adults of tomorrow?
Education in the UK may never be the same again, let us embrace the change and create a modern system; we know which countries have a better education system and therefore happier, healthier children – can’t we adopt the best practice and then think outside the box? The adults of tomorrow will be fighting the next pandemic that our scientists tell us will arrive on our shores soon, we need creative agile minds that take risks and are resilient. Does the current system nurture those qualities? Home Educating families do not value education any less because they choose to use the back garden for Maths!