Home education in a pandemic – how we de-schooled almost overnight

School’s out for summer – or is it out for longer? In the space of just one weekend we de-schooled our country. What does this mean for the future of education?

Mtaylor848 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

In ‘De-schooling Society’ (1971) Ivan Illich, the philosopher critic of the institutions of modern culture, put forward a series of suggestions for learning for individuals and society. He called for the use of advanced technology to support ‘learning webs’. He argued that the use of such technologies would support the goal of creating a good educational system. Illich argued that a good educational system would achieve three things:

  • provide those who want to learn access to available resources at any time of their choosing;
  • empower those who want to share their knowledge and skills with those who want to learn; and
  • provide a platform to those who want present an issue to the public with the opportunity to challenge the current orthodoxy.

Little did we know back then that Illich’s ideas would become crucial to our educational norm during the national lockdown, with the country given just a weekend to prepare for its introduction. The Government’s forced emergency stop of the economy will test the seatbelts the kids are wearing in the back of the national car. The best we can hope for is that they will hold and do the job they were designed for, allowing schools and their communities to move forward with renewed purpose when they reopen.

The situation in Yorkshire’s Universities

The Office for Budget Responsibility warned on Tuesday April 14 that education will be the hardest hit sector this spring (forecast a 90 per cent reduction in output). The impact is likely to be felt most by universities, who have already dismissed hundreds of staff on precarious contracts while international students from China and other countries are cancelling their enrolments.

The impact of such cutbacks and reduced student numbers next year in our University towns will be great. Yorkshire, with eight universities, will be hard hit.  In the 2017–18 academic year 19.6 per cent of the total student population of the UK were international students, 14 per cent of all undergraduates and 35.8 percent of all postgraduates. If student numbers do not recover after this health crisis, what will this mean for our universities and their host communities? Do universities reduce their size to fit the size of the reduced student market or do they look elsewhere for students?

School closures.

The effects of school closures on families in Yorkshire and beyond is immense. UNESCO says that some of the most serious consequences of school closures are interrupted learning, compromised nutrition (with the removal of free school meals), parents unprepared for home schooling and unequal access to digital learning portals. Social isolation and the subsequent effect on mental health of both the young people and their adult carers are bottom of a long list of concerns.

Most families will not have spent such a long time confined in their own space before. This brings pressure on all members of the family and given the locked-down nature of the world outside, there is very little relief from this new reality. Furloughed parents have some time to spend with their children. Families fortunate enough to have a garden attached to their property have an outdoor space to which they can escape. The pressure on those in flats or in houses without gardens is unimaginable for many of us. So the Government’s mantra that ‘we are all in this together’ looks and is a tad thin when we consider what real people are going through, without wider family, grandparents, brothers, sisters etc to fall back on.

Many parents are trying to maintain their children’s interest in learning. Some do this extremely well; others need encouragement and a little help. Most parents are not teachers. Most parents hold responsible but not always well-paid jobs, and dearly care for their children. It is very difficult to assume a role with which you, as a parent, are not comfortable. Many parents struggle to talk about mathematics with their children. Others don’t know where to begin discussing French or even English literature. Schools want and need their pupils back in good physical and mental shape, looking forward to continuing on their learning journey. The best hope is that many will return with renewed clarity about what they hope to achieve and are motivated to take up the challenge by their unique experience of having emerged from this strange period in our history.

We must remember when schools do eventually reopen that everyone will have to adjust once again to ‘school life’. School days are long and demanding. Staff don’t just work 9am to 3pm. There’s a lot more to it than that. In future, schools may have to embrace social distancing. The days of secondary schools with over 1,500 pupils may be over. Thirty packed into a science lab or PE changing room may be confined to the history books like children cleaning chimneys or miners digging coal out of a Yorkshire coal seam. Virology may force us to implement huge changes to the way we educate our children after this pandemic. Education may become more personalised and less centred on full-time attendance at one location. Teachers may deliver more one-to-one tuition via the internet and there could be more opportunities for practical learning in the local community.

This will cost money. Yorkshire and Humberside had 325 registered secondary schools in 2018/9. Government support will be needed.

Finally, to finish on a personal note, it’s been a strange time in the McCarthy household. With no dependents living with us we’ve explored Skype to talk mathematics with our oldest grandchild, a Year 8, not exactly the most eager mathematician in the south of England. The results have been interesting and led to a new dimension to our relationship. Previously I suspect, I was the old codger who knew zilch. Now, I am quickly becoming the go-to person for an estimate for the square root of 110 (my answer 10.5, actually 10.488). The post-Covid world is strange. The best we can do is to keep doing those things we’re currently enjoying whilst keeping away from our nearest and dearest.

One thing’s for sure, post-Covid, school may be out for more than just summer.

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