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3 Sep 2020

As Featured In The Times

“It’s been a nightmare”: why home schooling in lockdown was a lottery

Many parents despaired over the quality of remote teaching during lockdown. Others couldn’t have been happier. Why were their experiences so disparate? And what happens if schools close again?

The Times 30/08/2020, Christine Armstrong

On March 20 schools across the UK closed indefinitely for the first time ever. One minute parents were panic-hunting school shoes, packing gym kits and remembering what day swimming was, then it stopped — all of it. At the same time many of us loaded work computers into our cars and drove them home. No one knew it would roll on for more than five months or that the exam results fiasco would ruin the summer of a whole year group.

But it isn’t only those sitting A-levels and GCSEs who have been through the wringer. All over the country, many families have been undone by home schooling. Fiona Forbes, co-founder of the campaigning group September for Schools (see panel at the end of this article), describes parents feeling as though they were shouting underwater: “A giant assumption was made that parents would be the backstop for education, but time and time again we heard parents were on their knees, frustrated, angry and powerless because they couldn’t do anything to improve the situation for their children. Yet no one even bothered to ask the simple question, ‘How is it going?’

As we go to press, primary and secondary pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due back in schools this week and next. In Scotland, they have already returned. “Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible,” Boris Johnson has said. But debates about teacher and pupil safety, possible infections and the lack of effective track and trace are continuing: the risk of future lockdowns looms ominously. Are we ready for them? Have we even recovered from the first one yet? And what can we learn from what went wrong, and right?

Good school, bad school

Amelia Torode spent lockdown trying to run her strategy business, The Fawnbrake Collective, and home school her two sons. She describes her low point as “all of us sitting crying at the kitchen table, with my children screaming at me that I was worse than the worst teacher that they’d ever had”. Serena, a mother of one, says: “I learnt that if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a distillery to home educate one.”

The data is troubling. A UCL Institute of Education report one month into lockdown found that 2.3 million children were learning for less than one hour a day or not at all. Only 17 per cent of children did more than four hours a day. Some have done no school work at all since March.

As schools locked down, heads and teachers were frantic. Some had read the runes and swung into action before the announcement. Others were on the back foot, wondering if they could wait it out on the basis that it wouldn’t last long.

One who seized the initiative was Georgina Flooks, head of Warden Hill primary, a state school in Cheltenham. She got teachers and pupils trained on Google Classroom before the school closed and gave away school laptops to any families that needed them. The school provided three hours a day of learning during lockdown and delivered work packs and food hampers to the households that needed them. They called all pupils to check on their welfare. They managed to get all children back into school before the end of term. They used their website to provide regular updates, and some of the parents report that the school did a fabulous job. She attributes her success to the determination of her team.

But many parents will read that account with seething fury. A more typical experience is Katy’s. She is divorced and runs her own business as a data analyst. She has a 13-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. “Each teacher sent my son lessons and tasks to be completed each week. It was what they called ‘self-directed’, which meant he was supposed to just get on with it, but in reality it meant that nothing got done. It just led to tears, arguments, screaming matches. In the end I found it so exhausting and bad for my own stability that I left him to it on his own. The damage to his education and socialisation will have a long tail; I know he won’t be the only one affected, but I worry about what will happen to him.” She says that her daughter, who is at primary school, coped much better as she is more independent with her work.

One mother of three was similarly frustrated. “I felt so let down by the school. They are classed as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, and they provided work, but we had a very tough time of it and my daughter was verging on depressed through the lack of social interaction. The school did no face-to-face online lessons and only started doing Zoom videos after lots of pressure. I was pretty much on the verge of a breakdown and reached out to the head for help. I said I couldn’t do it with work and was going to give up with my very reluctant youngest. All I was told by the head is that that would be a bad idea and detrimental to his education and they would be in touch to offer more support. I never heard about it from anyone again. My academic and driven middle child ended the term utterly unengaged and miserable. It’s been a nightmare.”

Many others also found that their kids’ engagement diminished over time, with schools simply dumping boring, repetitive worksheets on a Monday morning and shirking wider responsibilities. “At first I was super strict and tried to do a school day structure,” says Amelia Torode. “But then as the months went past and the boys realised their teachers weren’t seeing or marking their work it became harder and harder to keep them focused and engaged. I also started to become less interested by the curriculum worksheets.”

The National Foundation for Educational Research reported that a third of pupils were not engaged with their lessons, fewer than half (42 per cent) had returned their work and pupils in the most disadvantaged schools were least likely to be engaged. The Fostering Network reports that 78 per cent of their children were not attending school when they were open only to vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Private versus state

Sutton Trust data from the very early days of lockdown shows that 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas already had an online platform in place to receive work, compared with 23 per cent of the most deprived schools. The good news was that many schools increased their online provisions as lockdown continued.

Some parents with children in private schools were quietly delighted when effective online-learning systems fell smoothly into place. In the best cases, parents had seminars on what to expect and how to help, and lessons were constructed so that children were engaged throughout large parts of a normal school day. Teachers were accessible, work was marked and a varied curriculum was on offer.

One mother from Norfolk whose two children go to private school admits to feeling “sooooooo guilty” about how well their school coped that she feels she has to keep her delight secret from her friends with children at state schools. “I avoid gushing about it with friends as I know the pain that some of them have experienced and the trade-offs they have had to make.”

She is right to be careful about what she says. Another mother admits: “I have reassessed my friendship with a private-school mother who was glad when both her kids were back at school in June so she could get her life back — she doesn’t work. The chasm between private and state education is horrifying, and some people just don’t get this. They can set their own rules. All my friends with kids at private school had remote lessons — my kids did not get any.”

Private was not always best, however. One mother in London who has three children in private school is still “raging” about the very small amount of teaching her children were offered, which was mostly worksheet-based: “I have been let down and my kids have missed out. I could not believe that I was doing 85 per cent of the work and paying 85 per cent of the fees. There was no explanation as to why — I think more staff were furloughed than they admitted. It was a shitshow. They don’t seem to understand that I have to work to pay their bills.”

She says that parents who go private are caught in a trap: you pay a term ahead and can’t move your child unless you can afford to write off that money. Some teachers told me that there were parents willing to forfeit that money, as new kids appeared in their classes in the middle of the summer term, from other private schools that had let them down.

Jane, from south London, has 15-year-old twins, one in the state and one in the private system: “What I realised was that the private school had more people in senior management, was more adept with technology and smaller classes, making it much easier for them to move online quickly and offer a similar experience to the classroom. The larger state school was slower, and with bigger classes less able to offer anything as bespoke. It made me realise that teaching online isn’t that hard, but it does take planning and management.”

Whether state or independent, what parents saw as good was remarkably consistent. It was getting set up early; communicating effectively with parents; offering livestreamed and video classes; generous amounts of teacher interaction and marking; practical support for families struggling with a lack of technology and food; and helping children with special educational needs.

Three hours a day of schooling at primary and four hours at secondary seems to be the broadly accepted level of what is realistic in the state sector, although some independents filled the whole day, with some going as far as to demand that pupils wore their uniforms for online lessons. The best schools were able to cover a range of subjects, beyond just maths and literacy, to include geography, history, PE and even science and art.

Where it went wrong, leadership teams and individual teachers were passive, waiting for the storm to pass and hoping not to change very much. Teachers were unavailable, work was based on uninspiring weekly maths and literacy worksheets, and there was little or no marking or communication.

Consequences and silver linings

Despite all the challenges, there were upsides to schools closing for many. Some children loved it, finally freed of the limits of timetables — they have run wild, stayed up late, played out and revelled in the access to screen time. One mother of two, who was born in Denmark, says that she cannot imagine a better six months for her children — gardening, exploring and enjoying the spring and summer. She dreads sending them back.

“Parents have struggled in many different ways, but others have fallen in love with their partners and children all over again,” says Sarah Clarke, a psychotherapist. “Those who have had a good enough lockdown will quickly recover any gaps in attainment and even those who have had a tougher time emotionally could be OK. I hear a lot of catastrophising, but my hope is that the average family who have got through this will have experienced an important shift of focus back to what really matters to children: unconditional love, time and attention from the people who care for them.”

Some families enjoyed it so much that they are keen to continue. The Golden Circle, a network of teachers and tutors who help with home schooling, received this message sent by one happy convert: “My son had virtual live classes and my daughter was sent videos and activities. I never considered home schooling, but this has definitely opened my eyes to it. We have decided to continue in September, either with an online programme or creating our own home-schooling programme.”

For others it was brutal. “Locking down schools acted as a magnifying glass on what a family’s situation was,” says Sarah Clarke. “Marriages in difficulty hit crisis points. Single parents felt the true meaning of isolation. The gaps between the haves and the have-nots turned into chasms.”

Teenagers were particularly badly hit. “We have seen an increase in parents contacting us about anxiety in teenagers over lockdown,” says Margaret Parker, an adult and teenage psychotherapist at Teen Matters. “The lack of structure for their days and lack of clarity about the future has led to a big increase in overthinking and anxiety. Even if some would say they prefer to be at home and hidden away on games or social media, it’s not a good thing for them.”

Some parents of children with special educational needs also felt let down. “Our youngest is in Year 3 and she has found this whole experience hell,” said one. “She has completely disintegrated. She is on the autism pathway. All of the issues that were hidden by school routine were brought into sharp relief. Home schooling was a nightmare for her. She is still struggling and is very anxious. The impact on the family has been incredible. I never want to home school again!”

For disadvantaged families, the problems were often grounded in fundamental needs: food, safety and routines. Here some schools stepped up. A head in a deprived area spent a lot of her time visiting families who didn’t answer their phones. She would deliver lunches and arts and crafts supplies from the school’s cupboards and talk to the children through their letterboxes, to give them a sense that someone outside cared for their welfare.

Sarah Counter, chief executive of the Canary Wharf College Trust, which runs two primaries and a secondary in Tower Hamlets, notes that “some pupils have disengaged, or have had no home support, and a few have not gone out during the whole period. Others were trapped indoors with difficult, alcoholic, drug-addicted or shielding parents. For some I think it has been a horrendous experience from which they will take a long time to recover.”

How much schools could have helped these families is the question. “It’s easy for the people who are comfortable at home to forget that for a lot of children home schooling was hell,” says Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector at Ofsted. “With the best provision in the world, home schooling would still have been hell for them.”

The blame game

In every case where a school did well, credit is given to the leaders of the school and the teachers who went above and beyond. People such as Grimsby-based assistant head Zane Powles, who walked five miles a day — hundreds of miles during lockdown — with a massive rucksack to deliver lunches to kids. Or the leaders at Oak National Academy, who wanted to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots and put together 10,000 hours of free online lessons accessible to anyone. Twenty million lessons have now been downloaded — two million of them in the first week of lockdown. BBC’s Bitesize has also been praised for putting together some great material very quickly, although some wished it could have gone further.

But when things go wrong, anger flashes and fingers point in all directions — not least at the government. Head teachers reported being drowned in a tsunami of “zealous guidance” from the Department for Education, often in the form of multiple emails and advice sheets with dozens of web links.

Robert Halfon, MP, the chairman of the education select committee, says that the government was so focused on “destitution and death” that it put all its efforts into the NHS and the economy at the expense of education.

“The government completely dropped the ball on schooling, there was no strategy or plan around it,” says the Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson.

In absence of clear guidance from the government, the unions stepped in with confusing advice of their own. The National Education Union issued a memo to secondary teachers that recommended: “Livestreaming lessons from home should be handled very carefully … due mainly to safeguarding concerns”. The memo did not specify what those concerns were. The same note advised against regular grading of work so as not to disadvantage those without resources at home. Guidance such as this infuriated heads.

Critics say that this led to two big excuses for why education could not be delivered. The first was that livestreaming teaching is a “safeguarding issue” and teachers should decline from participating. I have asked many people what the safeguarding issues are, given that almost every other sector has embraced video links, including GPs. The answers have included that “a lack of encryption means data is not safe” (from a school that allowed teachers to host class video chats where kids could natter about what they were doing during lockdown, but no actual teaching was to be done via video); that video can be taken by a parent and used against a teacher (from someone who also admitted later that the ability to record calls allows teachers to defend themselves); and that there could be a paedophile watching in one of the houses.

Pauline Wood, the former head of Grange Park Primary School in Sunderland, argues that livestreaming actually helps schools to keep children safe: “The very real risk here is to vulnerable children who are not being observed on a daily basis by teachers who know them well and are trained to spot signs of problems. Especially while they are in a home environment that can give us many clues about the challenges they face.” This is significant as the data shows that a lot of vulnerable children did not access key-worker support.

The second excuse for not livestreaming lessons was that not everyone has access to technology. In the most deprived schools, according to Sutton Trust research conducted in April, “15 per cent of teachers report that more than a third of their students would not have access to an adequate device for learning from home, compared with only 2 per cent in the most affluent state schools … 12 per cent of those in the most deprived schools also felt that more than a third of their students would not have adequate internet access.”

“If you’re a poor family, you pay more for your gas and electricity than a rich family, because you’re on a [pre-payment] meter,” says Matt Hood, the principal of Oak National Academy. “We now risk poorer families having to pay more for education too. They’re more likely to access online learning through a mobile-phone provider or via pay-as-you-go, rather than a broadband package. This is a real problem and needs national solutions, quickly.”

Halfon has little time for using the lack of technology as a barrier to livestreaming classes: “If 800 have access to tech and 100 don’t, you don’t not teach the 800.” He believes that it is the access to tech that needs sorting out. Some heads in deprived areas told me they handed out laptops that were normally used in information and communications technology classes, and some have spent government top-up money on devices. (A £650 million government “catch-up” package was announced in June to be shared across state primary and secondary schools over the next academic year.) Some would like to see broadband providers step in to end the digital divide.

Of course, there are many who think the unions did a great job of defending teachers at a time when their safety and welfare did not appear to be a serious consideration. Teachers were undoubtedly under huge pressure: for one London head, what he thought was a terrible hangover turned out to be a nasty case of Covid-19, another teacher lost six family members to the disease during lockdown, and many struggled with their own kids as well as experiencing anxiety about working on the front line.

Heads were generally keen to protect their own teachers from criticism. The only head to comment publicly on those who didn’t step up was Wood, who as head of Grange Park Primary was suspended by the chair of governors for saying that “some teachers are coming up with the most imaginative, amazing things … and other people do sit at home doing nothing. I won’t defend those people.”

On promise of anonymity, other heads complained to me about certain teachers letting them down. They tell of city-based teachers ditching their rent payments to retreat to their home towns, even if they were in Australia, New Zealand or Poland; and teachers citing health vulnerabilities as a reason not to return to classrooms despite photos circulating of them enjoying illicit Pimm’s parties in colleagues’ gardens, where social distancing had been entirely forgotten. Some heads were worried about staff staying in Spain or France until late August, risking two weeks of quarantine just as schools return.

The education select committee has asked why Ofsted could not have done more to guide schools, when it has a team of education experts available but with nothing to do since inspections were stopped during lockdown. “Ofsted seems to have taken a badger approach by reducing their activity and hibernating during these difficult months,” said Christian Wakeford, MP.

Spielman bristles at the blame game and explains that Ofsted repeatedly called on the government to set minimum standards. She concedes that they could have done more tracking of what schools were offering during lockdown. As it was, many of her team were deployed to other roles during the crisis, some unrelated to education.

What should happen next?

The first big lesson to learn during the school closures was that schools are an essential support in the wider economy — especially for working mothers who, the data has shown, largely led the education of children in this period. The reality that businesses cannot operate without childcare can never be ignored again. We need to rethink how schools can better support an economy that largely demands two working adults to make ends meet. Ideas on the table could include extending the school day beyond 3.15pm by offering more extracurricular activities and organising school holidays into shorter blocks, enabling working parents to manage the time better.

The second lesson is that our all-consuming focus on academic attainment has led us to undervalue the huge social support systems that schools provide. One head I interviewed spent much of the call fretting about the impact of lockdown on the school’s Year 6 SAT marks next summer. It was troubling that, amid all this chaos, many heads have been taught to worry about only one data point. In terms of welfare, spotting and helping vulnerable children and providing meals and stable routines, schools are invaluable. Spielman says that this is why Ofsted has changed the way it inspects schools to look at the whole service they provide, but some teachers think Ofsted should go further in this direction. Sarah Counter, who founded three academy schools, asks: “How much of this change to autonomy can we retain and how much dependence on external evaluation do we really have to reinstate? We cannot go back to where we came from, we have the potential to rethink things of great value and organise education to really help children.”

The third lesson is that good schools are a place of happiness, fulfilment and encouragement for many. Lockdown exposed a hole in our society that is usually filled by inspiring teachers, great friendships and the pleasures of music, art, drama and sport. Perhaps this is the time to appreciate the surprise that so many kids are thrilled to put their shiny shoes on and run back through those big metal gates. And how the parents will weep with new gratitude as they wave them off.

The parents who found their voice

The one group not coherently well represented in the debate about whether schools should reopen is the parents. This led four working mums — Fiona Forbes, Anne Messer, Katie Quinton, Katya Speciale — to create the campaigning group September for Schools. They want the government to deliver a workable plan for education this term, and improve plans in the event of further lockdowns.

“There are more than 19 million families in the UK and yet the voice of parents — who have been carrying the ‘load’ of work and home schooling and who can see firsthand what this is doing to our children — has struggled to get out there,” says Forbes. “We cannot fully understand why parents weren’t mentioned, acknowledged and certainly not consulted about the reopening of schools for at least five months. When many children didn’t go back after half-term — and the government had promised they would — parents started to get frustrated. And when plans were drawn up for reopening pubs, cafés, restaurants, golf courses, Glyndebourne etc, many parents became angry and started to ask, ‘How can it be that these sectors are prioritised?’ But parents were often too exhausted and stressed and simply didn’t have the headspace to work out how to make themselves heard. Even when they did complain, it was often as one individual so their voice had no ‘scale’, unlike the unions and teaching bodies.”

The group surveyed parents about their experience of home schooling, and within 48 hours they had received more than 2,000 stories on their website from parents under huge pressure. They have made submissions to the education select committee and written to the education secretary asking for updated guidance to include at least:

1 Minimum-quality thresholds for remote learning for all schools.

2 Minimum standards for teacher-pupil interaction.

3 Online-learning resources to address digital disadvantage.

4 All schools to provide stationery, hard-copy worksheets, photocopies of textbook pages and similar.

5 Targeted support for parents in paid work, parents of children with special educational needs and parents who do not have English as a first language.

6 Funding for children to access specialised mental-health services.

7 Published data about children learning in school and at home.

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