A light touch in dark times

If you are a school parent and struggling to ‘home school’, you are struggling because you are not home schooling – because no one ‘home schools’. School and home are chalk and cheese. School is an entire infrastructure in and of itself, designed to deliver mass learning in large groups. That requires plans, timetables, expertise, techniques and a level of management and oversight that most of the time isn’t needed or helpful on an individual basis at home, and can frankly get in the way.

Many home educators may well call themselves or be called ‘home schoolers’ but rest assured that they are not implementing timetables, ringing bells and donning uniforms. They are home educating. It’s a better term but it’s still misleading, because the average home educator is usually not much at home. Home educated children are often out, with or without their parents, engaged in weekday and weekend activities with other school children and other home educated children. Home education is not self-isolation.

So by trying to implement or even enforce, within the four walls of your home, a programme recommended by an outside source – be that you, or your school, or some other educational supplier (I note that the excellent Khan Academy is currently recommending a schedule of work on their website) – you may be attempting to do something quite unnatural and that is not likely to work, at least not for much more than a week.

Stick to structure if it’s helpful. But if and when it stops helping, do not blame yourself or your child. Something good is probably unfolding.

It may not feel good. Your school, or maybe even just one particular teacher, may be attempting to implement some form of rigid surveillance, to ensure that hours are put in and work handed over. So there may be a sense that you are doing the wrong thing if you don’t keep your child’s nose to the grindstone.

But many teachers and heads are already listening, and advising families to adapt to changed circumstances, knowing that these must vary from family to family and child to child. You will have other priorities – a job to maintain, other children to look after, special educational needs, a sick relative, general crisis management. Time and experience will show you what works for you. And the fact that children are now cooped at home with no distractions does not mean that they must therefore find it easy to focus on their work. The momentum of their lives being disrupted produces emotional and practical issues, which typically act as blocks to learning. There may also be sibling rivalries and other conflicts to work through, before the textbooks can be truly looked at.

The bottom line is that school work must not cause strife at home. You don’t want to set up stressful associations around academic work. Many young children naturally think of work as play. This is ideal and a source of true inspiration. Join in the play if that feels right: no need to feel guilty that you should be more serious in difficult times. At all levels, home education is fuelled by joyful, self-motivated learning. That, and not timetabling, is why it’s so successful, and why increasingly, parents are choosing it as a viable and safe alternative.

As well as knowledge acquisition, education in its larger sense also involves allowing children to take initiative. It includes developing skills and attitudes, discovering abilities around the home as well as outside in the world, and much more that can’t be described or measured, but that explains why many people with middling or even terrible grades can and do still enjoy successful careers.

We all know this from looking about us, or studying our role models, who often have complex biographies. Maybe you yourself acquired a good job despite lapses in your own academic performance. Success comes in many packages.

This is why Dickens pointed out 166 years ago that children are not vessels to be filled with mere facts. A timetable in order to acquire knowledge is, at best, a useful prop. It looks as if we are now finally on the brink of really coming to terms with this wisdom.

So don’t feel bad about letting your child or teenager take time off. It is well known within home educating circles that some children need time to decompress from the difficulties of school: like plants given fresh soil to develop new roots, such a break can help them develop new attitudes, though at first it looks as if nothing is being achieved.

Some children thrive on structure but all children will likely need leeway to adapt to the new reality of their lives, to adjust to the fact that all their usual systems and friendship networks are up in the air for an unspecified amount of time, and that their futures are currently being replaced with a multitude of question marks.

Young children need to play: that’s their work. It’s how they learn. Adolescents also need to play, in their own way.

Meanwhile, the mainstream’s focus on tangible solutions will continue. Online classroom platforms are currently selling like hot cakes as schools scramble to turn themselves into virtual learning centres by the start of the summer term. But unless they really want to, children and adolescents shouldn’t suddenly be expected to spend 9am-3pm at the computer. You never signed them up for online schooling.

Perhaps online schooling sounds easy and straightforward, but in reality, distance learning can combine many of the disadvantages of physical schooling without many of the benefits. Hours of it will not benefit the average teenager, neither physically, nor morally, nor mentally. The fact that some schools may soon have the technology to deliver to your child an entire day remotely does not mean that we should all follow this lead.

When people work at times that suit them, and when they’re in the mood, they tend to learn very quickly and efficiently. This is the fundamental reason why home education works well and gets competitive academic results. So it is not necessary or useful, when children are home, to have them put in school hours, or even direct their learning. A flexible model will have to grow out of this.

For further guidance from experienced home educators, including legal clarifications, resources, help with SEN and more, I recommend joining this Facebook group:

HE UK School Closure Support Forum

If you have study skills questions, my website may answer them for you and your teen.

For direct support for your child or for yourself, I work remotely by phone, Skype or Zoom.

One last thing: your children will learn from you how a crisis is managed, and that’s the best education you can offer them, straight from real life. From counting to spelling, from politics to biology, from technological advancements to ethics, life perpetually demonstrates the value and purpose of everything. Don’t underestimate how much children and teenagers will learn from this special situation, and also how powerfully you can model for them what you value.

And consider that you undoubtedly have skills and capabilities that they will pick up just from being with you. Education is not something that can only be acquired from experts. It’s a much more subtle, intangible, underground process, and children are an unstoppable learning force. If you run anything, even just the home, if you have even just a smidgen of capability, confidence or morality, you are an educational asset to your child.

I hope this helps. Best of luck to everyone, and see what solutions arise from this change in circumstances. No-one needs to get anything right this red-hot minute!