If we didn’t want children to ‘fall behind’, why did we home-school in the first place?
With the process of children returning to school underway in various forms across the UK, the media is full of ‘catch-up’ and ‘left behind’ chat, and with the anniversary of Lockdown One upon us, I (like all parents, I’m sure) have been reflecting on the impact of the last year – particularly home-schooling – on my family.
Written by Nicola Innes, March 2021
Important disclaimer before I go on: This is not a ‘teacher-bashing’ exercise. The staff at my son’s school, like in all schools across the country, have gone above and beyond, working (I imagine) even longer hours than they usually do to ensure home-schooling happens as smoothly as possible, at the behest of the ‘powers that be’. I know that educators want nothing more than to have children back in school, and they are doing everything they can to support children in unprecedented and difficult circumstances. And I know the ‘return to normal’ won’t be the end of it for school staff, as they will be picking up the pieces of the impact this has left on families for years to come.
My eldest child started Primary 1 in August 2020, aged 5 at the time. Having been out of nursery since March, I was deeply concerned about how he would adjust. I needn’t have worried, as he adapted brilliantly and took to school like a duck to water (I’m certain that our decision to defer his school start until age 5 – instead of 4, as a November birthday – contributed to his ability to transition in such uncertain times). However, when schools were ‘closed’ again in December (I use quotation marks here because, despite the media repeatedly media saying otherwise, schools were never fully closed), our family was faced for the first time with ‘home-schooling’.
I was NOT relishing this prospect. As much as my son loves learning, as parents we do struggle to engage him in activities that don’t interest him. I was pretty certain it would involve some battles, especially having heard horror stories from my friends with older children about their experiences during the first lockdown. However, I had heard that schools were ‘better prepared’ this time round, with more support, a better variety of resources and a more comprehensive ‘keeping in touch’ structure.
We managed. We didn’t do everything. We didn’t work every day. Between our jobs and juggling our 3-year-old and 1-year-old, we struggled to develop a solid routine. But we managed. We did the basics – the numeracy and literacy. I was so very aware of the ’dryness’ of this kind of learning for him, but I felt under huge pressure to get ‘at least’ those basics done because I didn’t want him to ‘fall behind’.
And here we reach the core of the issue. We argued, we battled – some days (a lot of days) we (or should I say, I) walked away from it, deciding it would be better to approach it in a better frame of mind. I was concerned about the impact it was having on not only his ‘learning’, but his relationship with me, and my relationship with our other two children. Maybe this was irrational; maybe I should have given us all a bit more credit. But that didn’t change the fact that I felt as though home-schooling wasn’t optional, because I didn’t want it to impact his return to school.
Do they need to ‘Catch up’?
As talk of ‘re-opening’ (quotation marks again!) began in February, and headlines about ‘catching up’ and ‘lost learning’ began appearing, I started thinking about the long-term implications of the UK’s decision (although education is devolved, all four nations implemented a similar approach) to home-school for what had now turned out to be a full year.
When the Scottish Government announced the school return for Early Years and Primary 1-3 for 22nd February, my son’s school were quick to get in touch with updates and reassurance (as they always are). But something in the email set off a tiny alarm bell in my head: the extra support staff would be helping to ensure that “the learning that took place during the lockdown has been fully understood and pupils are ready to move on to new learning.” Don’t get me wrong, I KNOW there’s a bit more to it than that. As I read it, I snorted to myself, half-joking, half-serious: “Aye, that’ll be right. Lucky if he remembers what I said to him yesterday!” But joking aside, this got me thinking and set me off on a scary path…
We, as family, had found it really tough. We are not made of money, but we definitely don’t struggle; we have 3 young children who all have their own bedroom; we have multiple devices in our house; both my husband and I were working from home; we only had one child to home-school – and still we struggled.
What about single-parent families? What about families home-schooling multiple children? What about families with no ‘quiet space’ for children to ‘work’? What about families with no devices, let alone several? Parents with a disability? Families where English is not the first language? Children with additional support needs? Children who do not engage in schoolwork in any situation, let alone this one? Children from a disadvantaged background? And yes, I know children deemed as vulnerable were allowed to continue attending school, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that scores of these kids didn’t fall through the net.
So, what does all this mean for children returning to school?
There will be kids like mine, whose parents had the time, resources and capacity to carry out home-schooling. And then there will be other kids, who – perhaps for one, or several, of the reasons mentioned above – weren’t able to do any home-schooling at all.
We KNOW about the ‘attainment gap’. We KNOW that children from certain backgrounds, or who live within certain circumstances, are already at a disadvantage in our schooling system. These are the SAME children who are more likely to have been directly affected by the pandemic in general (for a variety of interlinked socio-economic reasons including ethnicity and income, too much to talk about here). And they are the SAME children who live in circumstances which make it more difficult, often impossible, to engage in home schooling.
A Scottish Government study in December 2020, found that children from poorer backgrounds had less active engagement with teachers or school services, and less space to learn in. Studies of disadvantaged pupils showed that two thirds were unable to do work during lockdown (Scotland’s Well-being: The Impact of COVID-19, Dec 2020).
Public Health Scotland directly surveyed children last year as part of their COVID-19 Early Years Resilience and Impact Survey (CEYRIS). They found that children in lower income households and / or single-adult households or large families took part in fewer ‘home learning activities’ less often.
Additionally, children from poorer households experienced poorer psychological and emotional well-being during lockdown than children in more affluent households. Mirroring this, they found that children in affluent households were more likely to be doing well psychologically and behaviourally than children in less well-off households. A greater proportion of children living in high-income households took part in more ‘home learning activities’ on a more frequent basis (most notably in relation to reading). Similar gaps were seen when comparing single-adult with two-adult households.
So, there are children who are ‘behind’. But they have not ‘fallen behind’, they have been LEFT behind. Left behind by a policy which, by its very nature, inherently disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged – the policy of home-schooling.
March 2020: the UK government and devolved governments announce the closure of schools ahead of a full national lockdown.
The government positition is “There will be no home-schooling. These are unprecedented times; the people of this nation will be under intense emotional pressure the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. All four nations have agreed that we will NOT put additional pressure on children, their parents and their teachers by instructing our educational establishments to send work home. Parents of the UK – spend this time with your children, play with them, teach them new skills, take them outdoors into nature. Take the chance to reconnect with your family in the safe space of your home. Learning can still happen in different ways. School can wait.”
How much better would parents and children be feeling about the last year if THIS had been the policy across the UK instead?.
As one teacher friend said to me: “We shouldn’t have done home-schooling. Teachers should have been furloughed and home learning should have become parenting.” He had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but it’s a fair point. And crucially, the ‘attainment gap’, although still very much evident, would have stood relatively still. Instead, it has been widened even further as those same children who would have been deemed ‘behind’ back in Feb 2020, have now been left even further behind due to their inability to access home-schooling.
Setting aside the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental well-being, the real worry is that, unless WE slow down – back-pedal, even – these children will possibly never feel able to engage in learning again, in any capacity. We have taken the risk of leaving them behind for good.
Recent weeks have seen children deluged with a narrative that they need to ‘catch up’, with the English Education Secretary doing the media rounds on Sunday 7th March with talk of longer school hours, tutoring and summer schools being viable ‘catch up’ options. This has permeated into the consciousness of families. A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the last week of February found that 65% of parents of primary-age and 68% of parents of secondary-age pupils are concerned that their child has lost out on learning. Of those who expressed concern, 9% believe their child’s education will never be able to fully recover. Depressingly, support for the English government’s ‘catch up’ suggestions is high – 90% were in favour, with tutoring the most popular policy. It could be argued that this ‘catch up’ narrative perhaps isn’t being pushed as aggressively by the devolved governments, but it is still very much hanging over our heads.
So what do the professionals think?
Educational psychologists have warned that this rhetoric is hugely damaging. Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of BPS division of educational and child psychology, has said “The notion (of catch-up) reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure… we shouldn’t simply expect children and young people to pick up where they left off and ‘catch up’ immediately on any gaps in their learning. This places huge and unnecessary pressure on children who have been through an extraordinary and potentially stressful time.
Educational psychologist John McMullan, writing in the Guardian, agrees: “This narrative (of catch up and lost learning) is profoundly unhelpful and potentially damaging due to the psychological pressure if places on children and young people. It’s our national obsession with summative assessment that makes children feel that they have ‘fallen behind’ if they haven’t learned certain things at certain times. But in every year group, pupils are at various stages of cognitive, physical and emotional development. There is no such thing as ‘behind’, there is only where children are at.”
The same IFS study in England at the end of February found that 83% of parents were in favour of policies to promote well-being – such as in-class activities (arts or creative writing) or spending time outdoors. John McMullan points to the fact that we KNOW emotional well-being is “fundamental and foundational” for academic attainment and that promoting well-being can actually boost academic outcomes.
For example, a PHE study of 213 school-based social and emotional learning programmes showed an 11% boost in results in standardised achievement testing (PHE briefing ‘The link between pupil health and well-being and attainment’, November 2014). Social isolation has exacerbated disadvantage and pre-existing vulnerability. We need, John McMullan argues, to “emotionally regulate before we educate”.
Children will benefit from getting back to the structure, stability, predictable routine and clear expectations of school. And THEN, they will need space to play. The experience of play enhances social, emotional, physical and creative skills, while also supporting development of early literacy and numeracy ability in an integrated manner. There should be a ‘summer of play’ if we want to boost long-term academic attainment.
So, what is the solution?
Outdoor learning has a huge role to play here. The pandemic has created an opportunity for us to engender wider recognition about the benefits of outdoor play and learning. Lockdown has forced us indoors and made us realise the value of being outside – parents and educators should seize these opportunities.
Rachel Cowper from Inspiring Scotland, in an article with The Scotsman, recently discussed how outdoor education improves physical health and emotional wellbeing, drives curiosity and supports educational attainment. In the formative early years, it supports environment connectedness and a ‘sense of place’. In the same article, Elaine McKenna from the Jeely Piece Club Nursery, an outdoor nursery on the outskirts of Glasgow, talks about how those from vulnerable or less affluent backgrounds are the most likely to gain important advantages from being outdoors. Those exact same children whom we have ‘left behind’ with our narrow home-schooling programme.
As it turned out for us, my son seems to be getting on ok back in the classroom. We’re seeing some tough times at home, as I’m sure he’s masking while he’s at school, but what do we expect after everything our kids have been through?
Ironically, as he regains a small slice of his ‘normality’, it’s only just hitting me now how much all of this has affected our children. As a Primary 1, my son and his classmates have had the benefit of extra support staff on hand for the first three weeks, with less than half the pupils in the building. But as older children start to return, schools will revert to being over-stretched and under-resourced, now with the additional pressure of identifying and supporting those who need to ‘catch up’, versus those who are ‘ok’. And the gulf between the two will be wider than it’s ever been.
I’ll say it again: this is not about discrediting teachers. They have done their absolute best as individual educators for the last year, and they will continue to what is best for our children as we move forward out of this nightmare. But their hands are tied by a rigid curriculum governed by tick boxes and timescales.
It will all come down to resources, of course. Faced with the prospect of quick-fix improvement on summative assessment scores post-Covid, or slow-burn, long-term objectives that benefit ALL children, I have a feeling I know which path we’ll end up on. The implications for those we have left behind are heart-breaking. The bottom line is, as is often the case with our schooling system, we are forcing children to adapt to fit an inflexible curriculum, when we should instead be flexing the curriculum to fit our children.