Home school truths: how par­ents and children can sur­vive life in lock­down

The Guardian - - News Coronaviru­s - Zoe Wil­liams

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

Deputy head­teacher

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAMY

▼ Par­ents face an in­def­i­nite pe­riod of try­ing to keep their children en­ter­tained and ed­u­cated at home

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NIC BOTHMA/EPA

▼ While teenagers need to get on with their set work, they also need their pri­vacy and to keep in touch with friends

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