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  • Writer's pictureSteve Watts

Five million schools: three perspectives on the new reality

‘It can be difficult as teachers can’t give as much help or information as they normally do in class.’

Lara (Pupil age 11)

As we started March 2020 there were almost 33,000 schools in the UK, with over 500,000 teachers working with nearly 12 million children, of whom around 60,000 were being home educated in England. Everything was in order and all was well, but by the end of the month the number of ‘schools’ had exploded as the vast majority of children were sent home and parents asked to home school them indefinitely.

There are over 5 million working families in the UK where the parents are not designated as key workers, but have children under eleven. The challenges of simultaneously home working and home schooling are enormous in what psychologist Paolo Brambilla in the New Scientist (25th April) called ‘a social experiment that has never been done before.’

In my previous two blogs (13 April and 19 April) I wrote about these challenges and how they affected one family as described by Jennifer. In this blog I’d like to share the experiences of home schooling from a variety of perspectives including a pupil (Lara), a teacher (Sam) and a parent (Jennifer).

Jennifer (not her real name) has already described her anxieties and guilt about whether the time given to home schooling is enough and whether what she is doing is good enough. In an interesting parallel just as Jennifer was sent home from work at short notice, so were many teachers. Sam (not her real name) has shared her journal with me and in the extract below describes how she turned up for work on the Monday morning after the pupils had been sent home the previous Friday and was immediately sent home without time to assemble the resources she needed to run her lessons from home:

‘The beginning of lockdown. Pupils left on Friday. I was in school on Monday, then a message to leave school as I was not needed to look after the pupils who had come in to school. The panic to get out of school quickly, trying to sort all of the resources I think I might need.’

The challenge for Sam, however, had only just begun. As with Jennifer the anxiety and guilt began to emerge once she arrived back at home and began to survey the challenge facing her as she sat at her dining room table, ready to prepare her lessons:

‘Requests for more paper based work booklets for pupils with no Internet but I don’t have all of the resources I need. Copying information from the textbooks I do have at home and resources from the Internet, trying to give information to pupils and create tasks that pupils will be able to do without the internet.’

Here we are reminded that many teachers are also home workers and may not have all the resources they need to carry out their role and that they are planning material for at least two sets of pupils – those with and those without access to the internet. Having completed the hard copy materials for her pupils this then happened:

‘Completed these, then asked to re-make them as there’s too much paper, so time now spent cutting out lots of the work I had done while at the same time thinking, will the pupils be able to access this – or am I creating more stress for pupils and parents?’

There is an example here of how schools are responding to circumstances at short notice like everybody else. What will resonate with Jennifer in Sam’s journal entry is the last line where she’s worried that she is creating more stress for her pupils and their parents. This is a common theme in Sam’s journal entry because elsewhere she writes ‘I am trying to stay focused on the jobs I have been asked to do so I will continue to set lessons for my classes without putting too much pressure on pupils and parents …’ and ‘...I’m trying to keep going, doing as I’m asked to do without causing extra stress and pressure for me, my department, parents and pupils.’

Having read my previous blogs Sam confided her struggles to me and I suggested she turn to her journal as a way of capturing the mass of emotions flooding through her mind. She subsequently confided in her journal:

'I don't often journal. I have in the past and found it therapeutic. Steve encouraged me to journal. I was reluctant, then in the midst of my downward spiral ... I decided to write a journal as a way of ‘emptying my head’ of all of the things I was thinking and worrying about. It helped then and it has helped in this situation.’

Sam’s situation is just one example of a school. It seems that every school is managing home schooling differently. A school in the North West of England is advising its pupils to study two subjects per day (two hours of work in total), whereas a school in the North East expects its pupils to sign in with their form tutor at 8.30am and follow the school timetable as normal. Some schools expect their pupils to submit work whilst others do not require their pupils to submit any work.

Lara (not her real name) is a Year 7 pupil (age 11) who has been sent home along with her parents, one of whom is working from home. She says that she was relieved when she heard that her school was closing, ‘not because I would not have to go but so that the spread of the infection would hopefully come to a halt.’ With 12 million school-age children in the UK this reminds us that children are also fearful and worry about a situation that they won’t necessarily fully understand. Lara goes on to say that ‘not seeing my friends and teachers every day face to face is still hard.’

As we have seen from Jennifer and Sam’s journals workers and teachers were sent home with little notice and even less time to assemble what they needed. This is something that Lara picked up on when she said to me ‘it can be difficult as teachers can’t give as much help or information as they would normally do in class, depending on the circumstances they have at home.’

Lara is also aware of the pressure on her parents, which is something that Jennifer referred to in the previous blogs. Lara commented that ‘being helped by my parents is very different, as at school each teacher is good at the subject they teach, whereas my parents may not understand or know what my teachers are looking for, for them to be able to help me.’

With the prospect of home schooling continuing until the autumn, pupils are now being introduced to the summer term’s curriculum. Lara is aware of this and the challenges it poses. She confided that ‘my work being set is similar to what we are set in lessons whilst at school, the only difficult thing is when we start a new topic it will be hard to learn from scratch without the information and help my teachers would give in school.’

Lara's home school space

Schools are now beginning to catch up with the new context in which they are working. For example, one school has issued a home schooling timetable that essentially mirrors the school’s 'normal' timetable with morning registration, break and lunch times identified right through from 8.30am in the morning to the end of the school day at 3.15pm – six lessons in total which, when compared to the two advised by the school in the North West, is a huge discrepancy in pupil experience

Another school in a different authority advises parents that ‘structure is important and students should maintain a daily routine. However, that does not necessarily mean 5 hours of study each day … Studying at home can never replicate the classroom experience and the best model to aim for is one in which they work for shorter bursts.’

The school goes on to reassure pupils and parents ‘that our main concern is [that the pupils] are healthy, and that their wellbeing will be our priority when they return.’ One activity that the school has set is for the pupils to keep a diary stating that ‘what you are seeing, experiencing and feeling [now] during this national lockdown is historic … these are historic times – write your history of it. I am writing a diary of my thoughts as a teacher during this time. Let’s share that project.’

Sam has shown us how teachers are concerned about putting pressure on parents and their pupils; Lara is concerned about how the teachers can resource and deliver their lessons from home and how her parents can help her with some of the work; and Jennifer has written about whether she is doing enough at home with her son and whether it is at the right level.

In my previous blog, I shared an email Jennifer had sent me in which she recognised that creating separate “spaces” for work and school helped her feel organised and establish routine. She has shared with me further extracts from her journal from the time she did this:

Extract from Journal 12th April 2020

‘I have decided to tackle the Home Schooling first and whilst I do use the dining room table for most of the schooling, where we can use the home laptop for research/online activities, I have organised everything into “study packs” which can easily be stored away returning the dining room table back to a family eating place on an evening.

My next step is to create “completion sheets” for each pack so that both myself and my son can see exactly how much we have achieved per subject. Possibly through my anxieties, my son was also worrying about how much he needed still to do.

I will admit that this has demanded a lot of my time and effort but the time invested in doing this has provided both myself and my son a structure that we just didn’t have before.

The next thing to do is set a routine that suits us both. I feel positive about the steps I have taken so far.

Extract from Journal 15th April 2020

I am still struggling with the idea of “doing enough”. Is 2 hours a day “a tremendous achievement”? I was aiming for 3 hours a day as a minimum, half of a normal school day. There are days when we seem to achieve a lot in the 2 hours but then there are other days when we achieve very little.

Maybe my friend was right with the advice of being “realistic”. Have I been setting my goals too high, making too many demands on my abilities and time?

Jennifer asks pertinent questions and whilst there don’t appear to be any definitive answers, a common response to the question how much home schooling seems to be two subjects a day for two hours. I think it is common for us to want to set high goals for ourselves and our children, but these are inevitably tempered by the time and resources available. So yes the advice to be ‘realistic’ is probably very sound.

Extract from Journal 24th April 2020

Writing all my concerns and ideas in a journal has provided me with the tool to see things clearly. Looking back over previous extracts I recognise that this is a journey, one with twists and turns. I can see that to remain flexible is key and not to panic!

Today, the school have provided additional work for the post Easter period. On first glance it looks an immense amount of work but what is pleasing to see is that the work seems more structured, broken down into weekly, more manageable tasks. It looks like the school and teachers have been on a journey too! 😊

What we must remember in all of this is the toll on the mental wellbeing of both parents/home workers, teachers and our twelve million children. As Nicola Labuschange, a clinical psychologist, comments in the New Scientist (25th April) ‘What is having a really important impact on every family’s mental health is the complete change in structure … parents are now having to re-establish different sorts of routines – and when you’re anxious about a risk you cannot see, and about being able to pay the bills, that is a tall order.’ As Cicero pointed out 2000 years ago, ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’ (The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law), we need to be supporting our parents, home workers and children now as well as planning for the fall-out from the post lock-down era.

As we have seen in this blog one approach that is proving popular and successful is to write about your experiences. Both Jennifer and Sam have commented about the value of keeping a journal, whilst at one school the Year 7 pupils are being asked to document their experiences in a diary, effectively becoming witnesses to history as it unfolds in front of their very eyes.

My journal helped in the past 'and it has helped in this situation.’

Sam (Teacher)

'Writing all my concerns and ideas in a journal has provided me with the tool to see things clearly.'

Jennifer (Parent)

Stay safe, stay well, stay home and stay connected.

* None of the contributors to this blog (Jennifer, Sam or Lara) know each other, each living in a different county.

** None of the schools mentioned in this blog are connected, each one being located in a different authority

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