The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

What did we learn from the home learning experience?

For some children and families, home learning was a positive experience. What lessons can schools learn as a result? Elizabeth Holmes poses some searching questions.

The changes to our lives ushered in by SARS-CoV-2 in the early months of 2020 have been far-reaching. The new normal we had to settle into has seen shifts in just about every sector of life. A trip to the supermarket, a consultation with your GP or dentist, a visit to the library, going to work, meeting up with family and friends, or a trip to the beach – everything has been affected. Even on a walk in open country you’re likely to see conscientious hikers grab some hand sanitiser after touching a stile or gate.

For many, the lockdown-style measures that were put in place towards the end of March were a shock to the system. The dramatic changes to our daily routines and increased demands in our working lives hit hard and fast. Schools rose to the challenges they faced and delivered, despite a sometimes hostile media. But although the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed us, it has also taught us key lessons. Here are four.

1.    An unhurried pace with wellbeing at the heart

The first lesson we should fully take on board is that lockdown-style home school was great for some children. While headlines screamed out that children MUST get back to school (and there is no doubt that lockdown for some children has been excessively challenging) a fair number of families were in no rush to bring to a halt the home learning that had been thrust upon them, a situation evidenced by the relatively low numbers of children who returned to face to face teaching when they had the option to.

Whether they were provided with home learning suggestions or not, there are many children who did not suffer academically or mentally, and some who positively thrived on the opportunity to broaden their education horizons through all that was available to them at home. Clearly this was not the case for all children, but we really do need to accept that it has been the case for some, so that we can identify what, if anything, needs to change within the system.

Far from slipping behind, some young people have surged forward, gaining confidence and skills having had the opportunity to learn at home without having to grapple with the daily tensions they were feeling at school

Educator and Chartered psychologist, Dr Pam Jarvis, received an interesting response when she asked Twitter about the effects upon children of extended time at home. In her blog from 17 April 2020 entitled Exam Factory Spring? A Lockdown Reflection, she writes that ‘Parents overwhelmingly replied that their children were happier at home than in school, and some further commented that they were worried that their children would be reluctant to return.’

Dr Jarvis explores why this might be and suggests that the English education system is ‘transmit and test focused.’ Responses to her tweet spoke of learning at home offering the chance to learn at an unhurried pace with wellbeing at the heart, having the opportunity to play games at home, being more creative, and loving learning but not the systems around it in schools.

If we are to ensure that our schools (and colleges and universities) are serving the children and young people that they exist for, we have to take this feedback on board, don’t we?

Leaving behind what hinders, where possible, feels right

2.    Careful consideration of safety measures

The second lesson is that personal protective equipment matters. Teachers and other school staff have died from Covid-19 and we need to be as sure as we can be that we are protecting staff, pupils and their families as much as possible from the ravages of this virus. What is the best way to ensure that everyone is safe in our schools?

The latest guidance from the Department for Education on the full opening of schools states that: ‘There is no evidence that children transmit the disease any more than adults.’ Given how effective adults are at transmitting it, that will provide little reassurance for those who are at a greater risk of experiencing serious consequences of Covid-19 and those who are shielding loved ones from the disease.

An article published on July 7 2020 on expressed frustration at the lack of solid data on safety around schools reopening around the world. There are, the article explained, some emerging patterns. For example, keeping students in small groups, social distancing and requiring masks/face coverings are worn help to keep school communities safe.

But one of the key factors in whether or not it is safe for a school to be open during the Covid-19 pandemic is the extent to which the virus is circulating in the wider community. Of the measures designed to mitigate the chances of infection in schools, it seems that mask wearing is an effective way to block the respiratory droplets so key in virus transmission. So we can quibble about masks or we can do what China, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan have done and make them a requirement.

Given that we cannot ensure a risk-free environment, this should perhaps receive our consideration, despite official guidance saying: ‘The majority of staff in education settings will not require PPE beyond what they would normally need for their work.’

3.    What will you focus on, and what will you leave behind?

The third lesson is that lockdown helped us to reflect on and evaluate what really matters to us in our personal and public lives. For some, this altered working (and it should be acknowledged that teachers and lecturers continued to work throughout the period that schools were closed to most pupils) helped to cast a light into some murky corners that may have been ignored for too long.

Some have discovered from the experience of lockdown where their true interests in education lie, while others have resolved to pursue with greater alacrity what they feel will make a significantly positive difference to the learners in their care. Leaving behind what hinders, where possible, feels right. What is it we are doing? And what is it that we want to achieve?

4.    The status quo isn’t serving everyone well

The fourth lesson is perhaps the most challenging to take on board, and that is that the status quo in schools was evidently not serving everyone equally well. Not by any stretch. Time and again I have heard from parents of children with SEND that their children felt safer learning at home than they did in school. Far from slipping behind, some young people have surged forward, gaining confidence and skills having had the opportunity to learn at home without having to grapple with the daily tensions they were feeling at school.

Special Needs Jungle recently published the results of their coronavirus and special needs education survey. The key findings show that most parents were not involved in risk assessments for their children, only 18% reported that their child’s school or college had offered them the SEND provision they needed in order to complete their work, and many parents said that there had been no differentiation at all so their child could not complete the work set.

Crucially, while 37% of parents said their child’s anxiety had increased during lockdown, 38% reported that it had reduced. The reasons offered for this were: ‘a less formal learning environment, a more inclusive way of learning, less pressure, better understanding of the child’s needs, and reduced sensory issues’. For some parents, this has led to them considering home schooling as a permanent option.

Reflection points

While acknowledging the phenomenal effort of school staff throughout the pandemic so far, we can still explore whether there are lessons we can learn from these past months, given that stop/start schooling may be a possibility for the academic year ahead. These ideas may help.

  • Regardless of how successfully your school and its community adapted to the challenges of the pandemic, do you still need to find solutions to lingering or emerging issues as the new term begins?
  • Have you surveyed staff, parents and pupils on the high and low points of lockdown learning? Are there any points of contention that need to be addressed ahead of the new term?
  • Of the high points, what can be maintained once school life is restored to normal?   

As one headteacher I was in contact with reflected, ‘there is nothing like an experience of lockdown to demand that you see your school through the eyes of each and every member of your community.’

Given that research has revealed some important points for schools to consider, perhaps our real learning from these experiences might be encapsulated in our response to this question: What would this classroom, school, community look like if we were taking care of everyone?

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