Ready, Steady…Oh! Reflections on the Big Back to School Race.

Anna Dusseau | 12th August 2020

It’s been a long 6 months. Like you, we have spent this strange summer cautiously meeting with other families in open spaces, and visiting attractions where social distancing is in operation. We all wear masks, of course, crossing the road for groceries like Neverland bandits, the littlest fiercely brandishing a bottle of antibacterial hand gel from high up on his dad’s shoulders. Last week, we bumped into some friends. I should mention here that our children don’t go to school and that, whenever the politics of ‘post-pandemic’ schooling comes up, I feel incredibly torn. I was a teacher for many years and I ‘get’ what parents are talking about. Tanya, their youngest, is in Year 9. We all smiled behind our masks, eyes narrowing expressively as we swapped surreal social distancing stories and not-so-funny news headlines. “How are you?” they wanted to know. And, overall, we had to say, okay. But how was Tanya doing? Everything ready for September? I smiled encouragingly, but she shrugged her shoulders. “There’s been rather a lot of catch-up work over the holidays,” her dad murmured, ruffling T’s hair affectionately. “Don’t want to fall behind.” And we all nodded. Naturally. Only, Tanya is a smart kid; second set for almost every subject and, notably, a very gifted artist who I know (from being WhatsApp-spammed by her mum) spent most of July branching out into some incredible portrait photography. What could Tanya possibly have to catch up on? I adjusted my mask and looked at the line of children, all staring back at me boldly. It can be hard, once you step outside the school system, to hold your tongue.         

I feel for Tanya. From the initial shock of Lockdown, through the summer’s fragmented social distancing policies, and now contemplating September’s ‘mind-boggling’ back-to-school logistics, this has been a tough journey for everyone; schoolchildren most of all. In the midst of unprecedented global upheaval – of which the pandemic itself is just one factor, alongside major conceptual ‘shifts’ affecting race, employment, and social infrastructure – the UK’s 8.74 million students aged 5-18 have been subjected to the worst of institutional micro-management and political backflips. So-called ‘crisis schooling’ and the incredibly restrictive ‘school-at-home’ intrusion on private life was only the beginning. Now, families are placed under fresh coercive policies, including pressure on Heads to ‘secure full attendance from the start of the new academic year’ (1) and Ofqual’s deathstroke of adding a full series of high-stakes GCSE and A Level examinations into the mix for the Autumn Term – a move that will inevitably prove most punishing for disadvantaged children, where predicated grades are statistically likely to be lower and schools feel compelled to put them ‘through the mill’ again to nudge up the grade average. The treacherous game of ‘value added’, or whatever they’re calling it now. Despite thousands of parents reacting angrily to September’s mandatory attendance requirements (that is, if it’s feasible at all and, you know, if the teachers actually show up..) the Prime Minister rigidly maintains the old institutional dogma: that ‘all parliamentarians in this House of Commons support the return of kids to school.’ (2) Not true. And I, for one, won’t be buying into it.                 

Our family began home educating back in 2019; a move initially led by our disenchantment with the local primary school but which quickly spoke to us as a powerful approach to enable free-thought, creativity, and real learning. My own background is in education and I have spent over 10 years in various roles within this system: secondary school English teacher, member of Sixth Form management, GCSE examiner, private tutor, and study notes writer. On the one hand, it seems crazy that my own children now don’t go to school. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. A significant proportion of home-educating parents are, in fact, former teachers like myself, and this is a crucial trend to observe. Not because home education requires a ‘teaching expert’ – not at all – but rather because it says so much about the quality of what goes on in schools. Ask yourself, why do so many people who know the school system inside out choose not to send their own children? The answers go way beyond any dispute with an individual school. The decision to homeschool your child represents a paradigm shift, from delegating educational responsibility to the school, to assuming collective responsibility within the family for driving our own education and cultivating a ‘lifelong learning’ mentality. And, although a wide spectrum of homeschooling approaches exist, there are some governing ideas that unite everyone in the sector of alternative education, including Steiner, Montessori and Sudbury School models.

  1. Equality and respect between children and adults.
  2. Removal of the emphasis on assessment and grades.
  3. Holistic development of the ‘self’, rather than just academic progress.     
  4. Education being a lifelong, intrinsic process founded in real experience.

The thing is, people are all different. What suits one child, who is an avid reader, might not suit another, who is a talented swimmer. And the natural learning style of a young child will likely evolve over time, in response to their emerging interests and preferred method of learning. In an age of post-modern technological and societal realignment – where information is at our fingertips and millennials (myself included) shamelessly look to the next generation to assuage our existential malaise – we must all be wary of speaking in absolutist terms. Home education is a tool of incredible flexibility; schools are not. In fact, we barely need to scratch the surface to uncover the darkly Orwellian machinery of public schooling; an institution born out of the industrial revolution which has doggedly remained a hammer of state repression for longer than our collective memory – resisting progress every step of the way. The net result is that what’s happening ‘out there’ (never more so than right now) and what’s happening in the classroom, are so much at odds that it makes the DfE’s unyielding position that ‘regular attendance at school gives you the best possible start in life’ appear laughable to anyone in the know. In the US, homeschooled students typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardised academic achievement tests (3), whilst in the UK a staggering 64% of home educated Reception aged children scored over 75% on their PIPS Baseline Assessment, compared to just 5.1% of children nationally. (4) Which means that schools are failing by their own standards. Because grades don’t mean an awful lot to the majority of home educating families.

For some people, school is the right place; for others, it isn’t. Once again, the key is to challenge the absolutist orthodoxy that implies there is only one valid way forward. Without choice, and without the natural diversity that comes with it, any eco-system – our own included – is in danger. I’ve been receiving a few more emails recently from parents concerned about their child’s schooling. Disengagement seems to be a common problem with, of course, anxiety and stress-triggered behaviour swamping the other end of the spectrum (or perhaps they are two sides of the same coin). A number of families are also asking specifically for advice about bullying issues and the suitability of school-based measures to support their child with SEN or Statemented requirements. None of this is new. But it does seem to be the case that school closures have brought about a shift in perception, with many families re-entering the school system after Lockdown with a heightened sensitivity to the arguably toxic environment of mainstream schools. I’m not demonising teachers here; they, too, are victims of a system that operates a top-down bullying and audit culture which strangles intellectual curiosity and attempts to process human souls like laundry. How can it be otherwise, given the sheer numbers that pass through the gates? But the pandemic has undoubtedly raised the stakes. The forced return of staff and students – a measure that flies in the face of general medical consensus that the virus will likely have a second wave this winter, and that kids spread it like crazy – doesn’t feel good for anyone. Nor, I imagine, will the reality of the new health and safety measures, including the return to C19th face-the-front ‘chalk and talk’ teaching and the complex dynamics of minimising contact between students. Presumably assembly is off the cards, then? When we choose to comply with an institution like school, we tend to ‘buy into it’ wholeheartedly, even chastising our own children for a missed assignment or a moment of spirited backchat which we know in our hearts doesn’t matter in the long run. But the Coronavirus has given this status quo a good old shake, and we are only beginning to see how the dust will settle. Every cloud, eh?  

We ended up taking a walk with Tanya’s family, down the river and over the bridge to a takeaway coffee truck that does the best cappuccinos. Our eldest two ran along ahead and Tanya joined them; she’s got a lovely manner with younger children and it strikes me as a shame that these guys would never have even met within the school system. Education, according to psychologist Peter Gray, can be defined as ‘the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life.’ (Gray, 2020) School is not the only way to achieve this and, arguably, the corporate machinery of state schooling has got in the way of any real learning or discovery that was ever possible in this environment. If your children attend school, be clear about what you want for their education; communicate firmly with the school and don’t stand for less. You are not hostages. There are various alternative educational pathways, of which homeschooling is just one. Let’s be clear about one thing, though. We live in strange and rather unsettling times. Change is happening faster than newsfeeds can keep up with; let’s not be passive in that process – not when it comes to our children. Let’s hope that something good can come out of this: a child-centred, post-modern approach to education which embraces and supports real learning across an appropriate range of settings. Let’s hope it’s not more of the same, or worse.       

References:

  1. Richard Adams and Sally Weale, English schools to open full time in September with few restrictions, The Guardian, 2nd July 2020
  2. Jennifer Scott, Kate Whannel and Gavin Stamp, PMQs: As it happened, BBC News, 10th June 2020
  3. Brain D. Ray (Ph.D.), Homeschooling: The Research, National Home Education Research institute, March 2020 
  4. Paula-Jane Rothermel, Home-Education: Rationales, Practices and Outcomes, University of Durham, Nov 2002
  5. Peter Gray, The Case Against The Case Against Homeschooling, Psychology Today, May 2020
The Case for Homeschooling is now available to order with Hawthorn Press

Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

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