I set up a campaign group called ‘September for Schools’ in early June 2020 with three other working parents. My group campaigned for the safe reopening of schools and for homeschooling to be considerably improved if it were ever needed again. We didn’t understand why the parent voice wasn’t included in the debate in the media on education in the pandemic. Politicians, teaching unions, doctors, mental health experts and others all had a say but the voice of parents – who could see first-hand the impact of school closures on their children – was largely unrepresented.
We carried out a survey in early July asking parents to share their family experience of homeschooling by filling in an anonymous form on our website. Our campaign and survey featured on the front of the BBC news website and we received thousands of responses in just 48 hours. We read every single submission and sent every story, unedited, in a 500-page document to the Education Select Committee.
Homeschooling presented significant challenges for families – not least the difficulty of trying to earn an income alongside taking on the role of educator whilst also juggling childcare and domestic responsibilities. Our survey responses were full of high emotion – many parents were frustrated, stressed, exhausted and angry. Homeschooling provision was inconsistent, particularly at the start of lockdown, both between schools and within a school. It was also expensive and took a heavy toll on many parents and children, especially in disadvantaged households. Parents told us that they had serious concerns about how much learning their children had lost and how their physical and mental wellbeing had deteriorated. Hundreds of stories described children who were happy, carefree and loved school but who had become sullen, disinterested and lacking motivation at home.
We wrote to the Secretary of State and spoke to the opposition parties asking for clear guidance, appropriate funding (for laptops and WiFi) and transparent monitoring of homeschooling so that the experience of the summer term of 2020 would never be repeated.
It was great to see schools reopen to all in September and to hear from parents who were delighted to see their children back to their ‘old, happy self’ once they returned to the classroom, with their teachers and peers. However, with rising rates of coronavirus around the country and cases appearing in educational settings, schools soon began sending year group bubbles home and once again, homeschooling became part of the education plan.
My campaign group continues to lobby for improvements to homeschooling. We were delighted to be invited to talk to a group of Headteachers and senior leaders for a Big Education webinar on ‘Learning from Lockdown: Sharing Great Practice for Online Learning’. In preparation, we undertook a quick survey to find out what parents think makes for good homeschooling. It was gratifying to note that many parents observed that their school had considerably improved provision since last term. One parent wrote:
‘Recent changes to homeschooling have made a huge difference: a daily video from the teacher, daily fun taskmaster style task, a call from the teacher every two days and work on Google classroom per day
all as one (rather than weekly in subject groups, which was confusing and frustrating.) The difference has been significant. She did the work, sent it to her teacher and thankfully we had no tantrums.’
Another parent said:
‘Our daughter’s school has done its very best this term to support parents and children – we have had daily contact, lots of encouragement and a wide variety of activities.’
This second quote sums up well much of the feedback we received over the summer. The ‘Golden Triangle’ for parents of what makes for good homeschooling is a combination of 1) contact, 2) encouragement, and 3) variety.
It is worth parents and teachers keeping in mind that homeschooling all day every day is a big ask for many of our children. Sat at a table or desk in one room, usually with a screen in front of them and often many distractions close by – TV, toys, computer games, snacks – it is hard for children to maintain focus and concentration for hours on end. Without peers, without a teacher present and without the breaks and familiar routines of school, it is frankly surprising that many students managed to study as much as they did!
The main improvements parents want to see from homeschooling, according to our survey, fall into two clear categories: communication, and encouragement and motivation. For each category, there are 3 clear requests.
1) Tell us (parents and families) what the school approach to homeschooling is and what we should expect (how much work, which platforms, use of tech, how much contact). By being clear and upfront, you can manage our expectations and to an extent, mitigate some of the unhelpful comparisons between schools
2) Give us clear guidance on how we can help our children when they are homeschooling eg. turning phones off, finding a quiet place for them to work
3) Tell us when we can contact you. We would never turn up at the GP without an appointment and yet we often seek contact with our school without agreeing a suitable time in advance. Assume that we are likely to have a few questions when we are overseeing our child’s learning and plan a couple of times per week when we can get in touch
Encouragement and motivation:
1) Get in touch with students who are at home – this could be via live lessons, a daily call or a pre made video. So many parents told us that their child was re-energised and motivated to study when they had seen or heard from their teacher
2) Include a variety of approaches to tasks so that our children aren’t always sitting at a desk with worksheets or have live lessons all day. Ideally include tasks and projects that require minimal adult input, so that children can be self-motivated and autonomous learners
3) Acknowledge the work that has been done – to encourage children who are finding it difficult to focus and stay motivated at home. Parents told us that receiving feedback and encouraging words from school had a hugely beneficial effect on their children
By the end of the 2020 summer term, many parents described themselves as being ‘on their knees’. They were utterly exhausted and counting down the days until September. Assuming the winter ahead continues with more class and year group bubbles bursting, schools can do so much through good communication and by motivating and encouraging students to ensure they are able to keep momentum up and keep learning through this next phase of the pandemic.
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