Home schooling during COVID-19 exposes a UK policy gap

Posted in: COVID-19, Education, UK politics

Dr Shona McIntosh is a Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath.

In early 2020, governments around the world began to shut schools as a strategy for managing the spread of COVID-19. Children’s formal education was handed from teachers to parents. Simultaneously, many parents were made redundant, furloughed or asked to work from home. In the case of the latter, having children at home while trying to work made it hard to meet expectations about either work or learning.

This was a particular problem for those UK households with dependent children aged under 16 years where all parents in the household are working. According to the latest work force survey from the Office for National Statistics, this amounts to 4.6 million households. Of these, 3.7 million are couple households while 842,000 are lone-parent households. All these parents now have responsibility for the continuation of their children’s education as well as adjusting to ongoing uncertainties about their families’ well-being and financial survival.

However, reports of parental anxiety soon made it clear that parents were not well prepared to home school. Various how to suggestions sprang up in the media, with home schooling advice ranging from urging a focus on play to providing extensive resource lists for parents to select from. Many parents had no a clear sense of what to do.

On the 30 March, 2020, the teaching unions issued a joint statement aiming to cut through the confusion, stating:

“it is not possible to replicate a usual school experience at home. It is not reasonable, or feasible, for schools to continue to provide a ‘normal’ school education during this time.”

While at first this response might be viewed as welcome, the language betrays an ideological rigidity that is unfit for these rapidly-changing and uncertain times. The expectation refuted in the first sentence, that parents shouldn’t feel responsibility for teaching their children in the usual way, resurfaces in a new guise in the second sentence with schools exonerated from shouldering the burden. This leaves a gap. Whose job is it to support children’s learning?

Following this, the BBC incorrectly reported that teaching unions advised no more than three hours of daily home schooling. If you work and have kids, you will already know that the school day is shorter than the working day so the prospect of fitting your day’s work into only 3 hours is fanciful. And when families’ capacities and resources are already constrained, educational dis/advantage is likely to be perpetuated. How to educate currently seems to have moved from the policy sphere to become a matter of individual responsibility.

The unpreparedness felt by many parents stems from an historical lack of parity in the relationship between parents and schools. Joyce Epstein’s research into parental involvement in the 1990s shows parents positioned as helpers, subservient to schools’ agendas and values. More recent research into parental engagement in learning finds parents remain persistently peripheral when it comes to learning agendas, despite multiple interventions aimed at addressing this problem.

Closing schools has disrupted the conventional power balance with home schooling making parents setters of their children’s learning agenda. And, from this, problems emerge, relating to successive political reforms that failed to position families as central to children’s learning; a failure largely due to entrenched political views about the purpose of education.

For decades, UK educational policy has been a proxy for engineering a certain type of future work force, and a bromide for problems that cannot be solved in the present. Harnessing learning – a rich and instinctive human attribute – to (personal and national) economic futures has been the project of successive governments of varying colours. Such policies rest on problematic assumptions about learning and about families.

Educational policy has become myopically focused on a list of desirable outcomes to be acquired through learning about a narrow(ing) range of subjects, and increasingly preoccupied with curriculum delivery and testing students’ acquisition of said skills – the responsibility for which has been placed squarely with schools. Over the last decade, policy documents such as The Importance of Teaching (2010) and Educational Excellence Everywhere (2016) reveal reductive assumptions about learning, such as:

  • Learning equals achievement
  • Learning is linear, predictable, and cumulative
  • Learning happens in highly routinised and increasingly tightly-legislated environments (for example, child safeguarding)
  • Learning has definite outcomes – and these can be measured and tested

However, educational research rarely rests on such conceptions of learning. Instead, learning is widely understood to arise through dialogue during purposeful social activities and supported within responsive relationships. At its heart, as Ken Robinson pointed out in 2006, learning is about the learner and the teacher. Although Ken Robinson did not point out that the teacher could be a parent.

Nevertheless, educational research is often conducted in formal learning environments: schools. It is helpful at this time to turn to research focused on learning outside schools. For example, some forms of extra-curricular activities resting on experiential learning have the potential to promote social involvement and it has been found that citizenship can develop through participation in non-formal youth activities. This research adopts a holistic view of children as social actors, focuses on learning that is relevant to the child’s experience of the world, and sees learning relationships as the engines of education. This view of learning suggests that:

  • Learning is about growing up
  • Learning is sporadic and characterised by disruptions and upheavals
  • Learning arises within experiences of social activities
  • Learning has a personal trajectory and is highly dependent on emotions, security, and the responsiveness of others

This conceptual shift means that learning is less about securing qualifications for a future job and much more about bringing the young into adulthood. The focus moves from what is being learned (and tested) to who is emerging from the learning process. For this type of learning, parents are ideally-positioned knowers of their children’s life; policy founded on this view would recognise that families occupy a central place in education.

However, the positioning of families in UK policy does not reflect this view. Last year on the IPR blog, Naomi Eisenstadt and Carey Oppenheim outlined how fears of the ‘nanny state’ have diminished over the last 20 years and the once private realm of family life has become a matter for government policy. They argue that the family is seen as a unit of economic potential and that policymakers face decisions between allocating limited funds: to increase families’ (earning) capacities and/or reduce pressures on parents, either of which impact families unequally.

In the context of Universal Credit, Fran Bennett contends that such thinking rests on an outdated, patriarchal vision of families, where can adversely and disproportionately affect women living in poverty. This positions schools as a means to support families whose children obstruct their achievement of economic potential. When learning rests on assumptions presented in the first set of views above, educational outcomes become conflated with economic outcomes. The result is that families fall into an economic and education policy gap.

This gap can be simply demonstrated by the appearance, in 2007, of families in a government department with responsibility for education. The Department for Children, Families and Schools (DCFS) is so far the only UK education department that has explicitly connected families with children’s education and welfare. However, one of Michael Gove’s first actions as Secretary of State for Education in May 2010 was to remove families again, despite reports of concern about the consequences of dividing families and education:

“[Chris Waterman, editor of Children's Services Weekly] said: "Because children and families are no longer mentioned, we have gone back to talking about a service, rather than the children and their families. Children and families must remain at the heart of what the department does.”

Chris Waterman was articulating a view of education that has learning, not assessment, and the wellbeing of children, not the progress of students, at its heart. Had policymakers followed his thinking, the education system of today might have had better prepared parents for home schooling.

Maybe it is not too late to reposition educational policy priorities. Home schooling is challenging many of the assumptions underpinning UK educational policy. Although successive policies have failed to recognise the family’s role in learning, there will be policy choices to make when schools re-open. Will the choices perpetuate the divide between families and schools? Or might the societal rupture caused by COVID-19 prompt a shift in assumptions about the purpose of education and the role of parents in children’s learning? Perhaps parent-educators will be the key to answering these questions.

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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Education, UK politics


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  • Such a joy to read an articulate and reasoned argument for the the way I've felt since my own son was small. These ideas are at the heart of the Home Education movement, which I was part of for several years. When my son re-joined school - successful, capable and confident - I then had to endure years of feeling, as you say, subservient to the school's agenda. It saddens me that families still feel such obedient reverence to the school curriculum (blaming the kids and themselves when things don't work out) and I truly hope that this unexpected circumstance inspires some to see education differently and grasp the opportunity of greater involvement in their children's development. My son's 21 now, and I can tell you it pays off in bucket-loads.

  • I read your blog with real interest. I am completing my MSc in International development with economics and trying to decide whether to continue with research next year.