John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.
Home education is rarely a first choice, and is certainly not one now. Most parents resort to it when teaching is not meeting their child’s needs, or where they are being bullied, and it is a demanding, full-time job. In the most successful example I know of, a parent with high academic qualifications was working with her two daughters, and had previous experience of coaching home-educated relatives for admission to leading universities. As highly-educated parents do, she transmitted her own knowledge and understanding to her children in everything she did, and had some brilliant ideas. Even so, getting down to the detail of what the children did and didn’t understand in basic maths, and providing a platform for them to develop what proved to be an outstanding talent in languages – they were described by the admissions tutor of a major public school as “gifted” – required additional, individual professional guidance and teaching. For parents who don’t have this mother’s level of expertise, the task is much more difficult.
Teachers across the country are doing their utmost to help, but it is hard to gauge the effect. Many report enthusiastic participation in the lessons they are providing online, but chiefly from the most able, high-achieving children. “I don’t know what my pupil premium pupils are doing,” reports one on social media. Others are clear that many children are not doing the work at all, particularly in examination years, where nothing they do now is going to affect their grade. Sudhkip Nagra, of Leicester High School for Girls, reports a loss of motivation, caused by uncertainty and fear of unfair treatment in teachers’ assessments, particularly for candidates from minority groups.
Taking an exam in the autumn is an option that Gavin Williamson has done well to keep open, but it could easily cost candidates a year unless some special arrangements can be made to mark quickly. Advice abounds – German proverb, “Good advice is cheap” – but is it being taken, and are parents even in a position to take it? The less education they have had themselves, the less easy it is, and the less likely they are to have the internet skills they need to help children who have not yet acquired their own. Some do not have a computer at all. Libraries, the first resort of many home-educators, are closed. It is worth adding that schools that have kept open for pupils with special needs, and for the children of essential workers, have had minimal rates of attendance – one reported seventy teachers turning up for work, but only ten pupils out of an expected hundred.
Holidays, and the prospect of an extended lockdown into the summer months, will exacerbate education’s Matthew Effect. Schools can’t close the attainment gap for poor pupils, far less break down education’s Berlin Wall, if they have to operate remotely. One thing I’ve learned over nearly 50 years working with less successful pupils is that they need a strong personal lead and relationship with their teacher if they are to keep going and overcome their difficulties. This applies in all sectors, and I’ve recently enjoyed reading Jamie Blackett’s Kidson, an affectionate and humorous account of the work of a gifted teacher who provided this at Eton. It’s being adapted for the stage, and I recommend it.
So, as we can’t expect most pupils to teach themselves, or many parents to be able to teach them as well as teachers can, what can we do? The first thing is to accept that schools, like the economy, are taking a major hit, and can’t be expected to return to normal immediately. Many teachers are more worried about next year’s examination candidates, who are missing prime teaching time in the middle of their courses, and we can be grateful once again to Ofqual’s use of statistics to protect them from major fluctuations in grades. This system is wrong in principle, as it does not allow us to keep track of standards, but right in the exceptional circumstances we currently face.
Similarly, secondary schools, which will have to work with less detailed information on their new intake, will have to work out quickly where their pupils are, and start from there. In some cases, this will be an improvement on reliance on paper figures that may or may not indicate what pupils know, understand, and are able to do, as Sir Keith Joseph put it. We have to start from where we are, and we can only do that when we know where we are. This may even be a chance to tackle, once and for all, the problem of “the wasted years” identified by Sir Michael Wilshaw.
Finally, some tips from successful home educators.
- Watch and discuss a good documentary each day. They are often more up to date than the school curriculum, particularly on science, where they have access to the most recent research. A parent with whom I work found the BBC’s The Secrets of Your Food highly informative, and even tried some of the cooking hints.
- Use free sites. Khan Academy is good, though I find the pace a little fast at times. Languagenut is offering free trials for schools, and my pupils in Hackney enjoyed using it at home. BBC Bitesize is well-named and useful, with some recent revisions (I contributed to the recent revision on languages). Your school may subscribe to a site, eg My Maths, and this is well worth using.
- Easyread, a government-approved phonically based online scheme to tackle reading difficulties, has recently got a remarkable result with a pupil of mine who had severe reading difficulties and had been assessed as autistic. Not free, or indeed cheap, but a free trial, money-back guarantee, and a subscription scheme for schools.
- Make full use of teachers’ advice and goodwill, but don’t badger. Like many others, I’m happy to provide free help over the internet, to teachers or parents, and can be contacted via Twitter, or my website.