At the end of January Boris Johnson wrote an open letter to parents praising their response to the pandemic and its “unique challenges”.
“Whether you’ve been welcoming a baby into the world without all the usual support networks … or steering a teenager through the emotional stresses and strains of these unprecedented times, you have been dealt the trickiest hands yet played it magnificently”.
It’s widely acknowledged at the moment that many parents are exhausted and stressed from the effort of trying to home school and work from home. It seemed to me that this letter was the educational equivalent of the weekly NHS clap – a desultory pat on the head for parents which typifies the laissez faire approach of this government to so many of the issues which we face.
It’s the institutional equivalent of the passive aggressive person you know, who when your world falls apart says “Oh, it must be SO difficult for you”. Yeah, thanks for that.
It might be less difficult if the government did more to actually support parents and carers.
Firstly, there’s the whole tech fiasco …
A year into the pandemic, many children still do not have the tech they need to access the curriculum. Furthermore, not every child has the laptop they need and broadband is not as affordable as it should be. My own MP, Darren Jones, is lobbying to get internet providers to extend affordable coverage to low income families. The provision of laptops has been slow and cumbersome due, surprise, surprise, to the government’s typical mode of operation – that is, not letting schools identify how many they might need and giving them the money to buy them – but giving a £96m contract to a Tory donor without an open tender. Actually, as has been reported in Byline Times (Sam Bright 8 January), the company had been given another £87million in November for the supply of an unspecified number of devices. So far, so depressingly familiar.
Call me a cynic, but I’m going to predict that the required number of laptops probably will arrive six months after they are no longer needed and will sit unused somewhere until they have to be replaced by some more up to date versions with the right software.
Then there’s how to educate …
One of the major stressors on this whole situation is that this government, and Gavin Williamson in particular, just don’t seem to get what education is in the first place. At the beginning of January, Williamson told parents that they should complain if they felt that their child’s school “is not providing suitable remote education they should first raise their concerns with a teacher or headteacher, and failing that report the matter to Ofsted”.
The Department for Education revealed its online learning expectations for schools with very little time for teachers to prepare. The expected hours online were increased, so that most children are engaged in online learning for four or five hours a day. The culture of complaint that Williamson has established, along with the expectation that schools must have systems in place for checking daily whether pupils are engaging with their work has encouraged many schools to issue sanctions for non-attendance. This seems to me to be the worst kind of management by spurious KPI’s imaginable. What next, uniform checks over zoom?
Four or five hours in front of a screen is too long for any kind of meaningful learning to take place. Especially when this is all that is on offer day in, day out. What I can say with a degree of absolute certainty, after years of teaching and tutoring experience, is that you can only learn with consent. Just because kids are logged on, doesn’t mean that any actual progress or learning is taking place. Without the stimulation and possibilities of the classroom environment, much of the joy and momentum is lost.
And the stress falls on the mums …
Go online and have a look at Mumsnet, and you’ll see that the forums there are full of women at the end of their tether with all of this, totally fed up with cajoling, bribing , pushing reluctant children in their own homes. It’s like some twisted version of Big Brother. And yes, I say women advisedly. I know that there are men home-schooling, but research from UCL last Summer confirms what most of us already know, that women are spending at least twice as much time on home-schooling as men, whilst those with primary school children are “considerably more likely to have given work up” than fathers.
Many women are complaining of unrealistic expectations with what they can achieve at home to motivate and support their children’s learning whilst trying to work as well. It seems to me that it would be more helpful if the REQUIRED number of hours online were reduced and parents were given the option of taking more online learning hours or choosing from a range of offline projects/ activities if they wanted to. Rather than writing a patronising letter to parents about how well they were doing, how about producing a guide for parents on how to approach and support children’s learning at home? This could include pointers on how to teach basic topics and a bank of indoor and outdoor activities to inspire a genuine interest in the environment in which they live, whether that’s rural or urban? Children are at home right now, it seems logical to use THAT environment as the starting point, rather than trying to bring school into the home.
This pandemic has a habit of exposing and deepening the fault-lines in our society, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of educational attainment and opportunity and women’s inequality in the workplace.
We are looking at a possible end to this nightmare soon-ish, with a rumoured phased return to schools planned from March 8th. I remain extremely sceptical about the government’s ability to lead a recovery curriculum effectively. Nick Gibb, the school’s minister seems overly obsessed with everyone “catching up”. Education is not a race, it’s a lifelong process. As a very wise deputy head said to me when the National Curriculum was introduced “You don’t fatten cows by weighing them”.
All children will have endured a setback to their learning during this pandemic and therefore the emphasis should not be on catching up but in effectively meeting our children and young people where they are and in re-engaging them with each other and the world at large.
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