Home school truths: how parents and children can survive life in lockdown
Exams are cancelled and the examination boards have yet to completely decide what they will do instead. You may have read about what Isaac Newton discovered while under quarantine, or that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during an outbreak of plague.
However, history suggests that these people did have sole care of a four-year-old and a six-year-old. If you feel you are going crazy you can console yourself, momentarily, with the timetables that parents are drawing up and putting on Twitter: 9 to 11am, Frozen; 11am to 11.05, pizza; 11.05 to 1, fighting; 1 to 3, Frozen II. But this will kill only 30 seconds.
Even the most anarchic parent will recognise that they have to find a fruitful way to fill the days, which means trying to replicate the formal education the kids are missing.
Education Otherwise, the primary English home-schooling organisation (it has a Welsh arm; Scotland has Schoolhouse), describes the two core approaches taken by parents: structured or autonomous. Structured learning follows the school day and curriculum; there is a solid argument that, as you intend your children to go back to school and the school will give you materials (all primary and secondary schools are making plans to this effect), this is the way to go.
If you are of an autonomous bent, however – keen to follow the Platonic ideal: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds” – that is also legitimate. Your children are unlikely to get hopelessly behind. They may even come out knowing more about creative writing than fronted adverbials.
Amanda Grace, the deputy head teacher of Macaulay Church of England primary school in Lambeth, London, says: “Start every morning with a timetable and stick to your timings. Use language such as ‘now’ and ‘next’. For younger children, you can build in very clear timings such as 10 minutes’ reading followed by 10 minutes’ Lego, role playing, chase games or exercises.”
Ben Wilson, 19, was homeschooled from 12 to 13. Although he and his mother, the film-maker Beadie Finzi, describe a lot of creative learning, he says: “We put together quite a formal timetable. The routine aspect is important. If you’re just: ‘At some point we’ll do this,’ you’ll fall into the trap of not ever getting anything done.”
Children under five
This is the hardest age to cope with, for loneliness and squabbling. On the plus side, a lot of the formal learning requirements are things you would do instinctively: communication and language development; movements and coordination; reading and writing; counting and adding; and expressive arts and design.
There is a education section on understanding – the world, people and communities, technology – but where would any of us start? The challenges in this age group will be around letting off steam, especially if you can’t leave the house.
Keep your timetable realistic. You will not conclude a slime-making session in less than an hour; you will probably not spend more than 10 minutes at a go reading. If you have a garden, use it as much as you can (for communication, all motor skills, understanding the world).
‘Try to give tangible rewards. Young children love a sticker. A hug and a jump around is highly effective’ Amanda Grace
In the pre- or only just-verbal age group, it’s hard to explain what’s going on in a reassuring way; you can download a really good illustrated booklet at mindheart.co/descargables.
Five to eight
By this point you’ll have materials from school to base your day round. Now that they’ve got some fine motor skills, you can build in some practical experiments, which can be either directly or indirectly germane to the curriculum. Making sugar crystals, exploding baking powder and vinegar, putting eggs in Coke, dyeing noodles in unicorn colours: all of this will genuinely (I’m not even joking) come up in the science curriculum, and can be spaced out over several days.
Cooking is obviously useful for maths. And children of this age are still biddable enough to do home circuits, music and movement. “Anything you can do with physical actions will also enhance their focus,” Grace says. “Getting children to stand behind their chair and make up actions for factual learning also helps break it up and make it more fun. Anything that can be turned into a game or a competition also galvanises focus dramatically.”
For children approaching key stage one the school will certainly have areas they want you to cover, although tests at this age were always about measuring schools more than pupils. So don’t pile on pressure, but don’t underestimate your child. “When children are engaged and active,” Grace says, “their focus can be incredible.”
However, don’t expect them to listen to you drone on for hours. “When it comes to listening to any sort of teaching input, we have an old adage that the time in minutes that you talk to your class should never be more than the children’s age in years plus two. The key here is in children being active and unearthing the learning themselves as far as possible.” Sit next to them, actively trying to help them understand.
Grace continues: “Questions should be open, such as ‘tell me more about that’, ‘what made you think that’, ‘what did you know already that led you to do that question in that way’, ‘tell me how you did it’, ‘did the way you approached that work – why/why not’, ‘what would you change next time and why?’ Take a little time to look up Bloom’s Taxonomy [a classification of learning outcomes] online.”
At this, and indeed all ages, “you cannot overencourage a child”, Grace says. “Try to give time frames and tangible rewards. Young children love a sticker. A hug and a jump around for completing the task at hand is also highly effective. Timers work well, as do clear expectations such as: ‘When I check in 10 minutes’ time, you will have written up to this line’.”
Nine to 11
Approaching key stage two, the same rider applies as to KS1: try to minimise stress. There is even more material that you’ll be able to access through the school or online. The BBC is putting out its educational content, BBC Bitesize and BBC Teach, on iPlayer as well as doing two bespoke educational podcasts a day on BBC Sounds.
There will be upsides. Wilson remembers: “You have to plan, because you’re going to get through an enormous amount. What would take a class a week will take you a day, easily, because you’re not waiting for 29 other people to finish.” His mother recommends bringing in family members, though obviously for 2020 that depends who is well and how old they are. Finzi says she and Wilson’s father, Alex, “would have lost our minds if we’d done it all. And the conversations that Ben had with Uncle Tony about biology, he’ll remember for the rest of his life, because they were wild.”
If you can think of people who are particularly good at a subject, you can organise group tutorials on platforms such as Skype or Zoom.
While you probably want to cover the curriculum, you’ll have time to do other things. Kerstin Rodgers home-schooled her daughter for a year at the end of primary school. “My boyfriend at the time was very interested in self-sufficiency; he was a bit of a prepper. So my daughter was quite adept with an axe at age nine,” she says.
If the early years were all about “cooking, designing, problemsolving, experimenting, water play using the bath or sink”, says Grace, at this age you can “make up plays or compose letters and cards for grandparents, Skype the plays, put together PowerPoint presentations to share. Anything with a real-life purpose is far more appealing.”
Twelve and above
OK, deep breath: this may involve some arguing against Fortnite or TikTok. The cancellation of GCSEs and A levels has left some teens ashen about the loss of their life’s work, others celebrating, and some doing both in cycles of five minutes.
Emphasise that the learning was and is precious in its own right, and the exams were only ever a random temperature check on the vast and beautiful ecosystem of their giant brains. Or something.
This does mean continuing to take the learning seriously, and trying to match the five hours of learning they would do at school. Most secondary schools will have a homework app and be funnelling through what they consider at least the necessary work.
So apart from having to bend them to your will, the challenge is whether you can help if you don’t understand it yourself. “The first port of call is to see if your child can explain it to you,” Grace suggests. “In doing so, their own learning will become far more concrete. When you look things up online, be careful to put in the level of understanding that you need; is it for KS2 or GCSE?” Rodgers tried to teach her daughter in French, her own second language, and coped better than with the maths and science. “They way they teach those things has obviously moved on from when we did them. So you’re having to learn it all again.”
Look things up. Consult widely (ie ask Twitter). Try not to appear interfering. Children are never too old to be diverted by arts and crafts. Consider a more advanced science kit so you can blow things up. Let them have some privacy. Encourage them to talk to friends after their work, especially if you’re self-isolating. Wilson recalls: “When I was 12, I didn’t have a phone. I remember being incredibly lonely at points. This is what parents should prioritise. Technology makes it a bit easier. It’s definitely the trickiest aspect to get right.” Play cards.
“If you do have a large family,” Grace says, “maybe there is a small project a group of the children can work on together, such as a collage or painting while you hear one of them read or tackle the maths.”
Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself or them; if you need to throw in the towel for the day, do. Both Finzi and Rodgers dropped the timetable if they had to, and they have magnificent children (Wilson is at Sussex University; Rodgers’ daughter, Sienna, was an alternative samba band leader at eight, and editor of Labour List at 23).
Life can feel like a marathon done at a sprint. We don’t have to win it – we just have to live it.
▼ Parents face an indefinite period of trying to keep their children entertained and educated at home
▼ While teenagers need to get on with their set work, they also need their privacy and to keep in touch with friends