Popcorn popping on the apricot tree: the blossoms during Covid-19

Parents were asked, ‘Does anyone who chose to use schools feel their children have blossomed whilst learning at home?’. Within less than 24hrs there were over 200 responses. Within 48hrs over 400 responses. The question asked parents to reflect upon the last 5 months and identify if anything had changed since lockdown forced education back into their hands. The sheer number of responses in such a short space of time was awe inspiring. The over whelming majority of responses had identified how much “happier” their children had been whilst learning at home. Although comments are still coming in, over 75% of the responses were the positive observations made by parents suggesting that educating at home had improved the wellbeing and mental health of their child(ren). Other polls created by home education groups have looked at the number of parents who have since chosen to home educate permanently (49.5% in the Scottish Home Education Forum survey ). However this question was composed to look specifically at the wellbeing and mental health of children since lockdown began. It is already known that children’s parents are best placed to observe and assess the wellbeing of their children. Parents are gatekeepers and safeguard the mental health of their children. Parents are strategically positioned to notice signs and symptoms, behavioural changes or red flags indicating all is not well; parents are the first line of defence for children.

Covid-19 has unsettled families around the world, however, this is an unprecedented opportunity for home education to shine. Of course there are critics who will say that thousands of children are now ‘behind’ and thousands of children have been ‘let down’ by parents struggling to educate from home . However, can a child actually be behind if we remove the levels, testing and curriculum measures that we use in our antiquated schooling system? Imagine a child walking through the most magical forest ever to have grown; trees as tall as the blue sky above, forest animals scurrying through the undergrowth and butterflies glistening as they dash from leaf to leaf. Can you picture the breeze lifting a million blossoms from their stem as they flower and share their springtime aroma? Feel it; see it; hear it; smell it; that freedom to blossom and fly. It is a safe bet that there is no adult with that child in the picture created within your minds-eye. No adult checking off boxes that sit next to generic statements like, ‘ I know which is left and which is right’ or ‘I Can identify Oak leaves’ and ‘Firm understanding of the life cycle’. Of course not, of course that adult does not feature in our perfectly created forest where our imaginary child is free to roam, dance, collect, touch, taste, smell and explore. That checklist does not objectively reveal all the new sensory or experiential learning that is taking place for our imagined child. Our child cannot be ‘behind’ in their learning if we do not have a checklist in the first place. There is just learning and experience at the pace and rate of each child. Learning that may well be scaffolded (supported) by older children, younger children, parents, teachers or others; remove the testing and a child’s natural abilities, inquisitive mind and desire to learn through exploration can be followed and progress observed.

Did you already start responding to that last paragraph with a ‘but…’? There will always be a counter-argument and a ‘but’. Considering how autonomous learning might look in practice does not mean we have to ignore proven theory. We know scaffolding helps, we know children’s cognitive development, social development and emotional development happens at different ages and stages for each of them. The aim here is not to challenge the well proven theories of development and learning, more to soften the pro-school versus pro-home education argument. Does it have to be so contrasting? There is an enormous difference between the pressure of being tested amongst 29 other children and a parent asking if a fact or concept can be recalled.

Parents responded to the original question with comments such as “Ive noticed huge gaps in their knowledge” and “I immediately noticed gaps so we went back to basics”. An entire book could be dedicated to reasons why children have gaps, a week off school with chicken pox, a hearing concern, boredom, too much teacher-talk, a music lesson during carpet-based teacher-input…to name just a few. Society (and Government) have come to believe everything can and should be learned in schools and that children should never be absent (in mind or body). This leaves some parents wondering what their role actually is beyond feeding, clothing and housing their offspring; “I didn’t realise how little they were learning at school…they are not teaching the life skills I thought that they were”.

Interestingly not many home educating families have a complete dislike of everything that is schooling. Many are teachers themselves , many have been trained to teach in the very schools they choose not to place their own children. What is far more interesting is that there are many teachers who love education, educating and learning but despise the system in which they have to teach. Our teachers are up and coming hero’s during this pandemic, they will be the next front line within days and weeks as each of the UK’s leaders make tentative moves to getting children back into the classrooms. Our teachers and our children are about to participate in the worlds biggest, scariest experiment of all; keeping Covid out of our classrooms.

There are valid reports with reliable data being generated almost daily, as researchers publish in response to this new world, with new opportunities for once in a lifetime access to the human responses towards Covid-19. The DELVE report ‘Balancing the risk of pupils returning to school ’ paints a bleak picture of the future of an entire generation if children should miss any further schooling. Professor Burgess who is the main researcher and author of this report has been quoted saying “we know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school…” and the report argues that the 3-4 months of schooling that children have already missed equates to around a 3% loss in earning potential for each child. However a report that uses education rather than schooling as the subject of the research, is yet to be found. Lets be clear, many reports are based upon a child’s schooling not on their overall education. There is a reason for this, leaving the general confusion between schooling and education aside, there are existing parameters and an existing, measurable framework if researchers use schooling as their subject. There are no such parameters or frameworks to analyse within home education, at least not yet. Simply put, schooling success and failure can be measured because the framework of success and failure is already set out in the Oftsed reports, GCSE data, A-Level data and SATs data. We already know that a child who leaves primary school without a level 4 in literacy and numeracy will go on to struggle to achieve 5 good GCSE’s . We already know that a child who leaves school without a C (4/5) in English and Maths will go on to earn less than the child leaving school with a B (6). There are measurable data sets that can be analysed in order to make justifiable predictions about each child’s future.

There are no such data sets in home education. Does that mean a child cannot learn effectively outside of a classroom? Of course not (listen for the cries of fellow home educators and their long-suffering representatives and group administrators). Parents responded to the question with exclamation marks and bold type, such was the passion behind each of the answers; “IMMEDIATE CHANGES FOR THE BETTER”and “She thrived, Im a teacher and Im considering leaving my job…. It is difficult not to see the upwards trend of parents seriously considering or taking the plunge into home educating full-time when responses read “My sons writing was nearly illegible but he is now working at his brothers level (2yrs older) because I link his work to his special interests. The school refused to do this.”

Home educators are slowly gathering pace and coming together in an organised fashion. Parents who once believed schools to be the only place a child could be educated, were thrown into that teaching role over night. Those same parents responded to my question with passion, eagerness and in some cases anger. Many parents responded to say “I noticed gaps in their learning” and even more responded to say that they had noticed an enormous change in their children’s behaviour, for the better. Children’s wellbeing and mental health has improved in dozens of cases. Over 75% of my 200+ parents expressed that their children’s mental health and wellbeing has improved since learning from home began (“…she’s less tearful and doesn’t wake up feeling sick and crying every morning” and “My 5yr old reception child thrived…it has made me really see the value in Home Schooling”).

By the time the question had been in the public domain for 24hrs, there were over 200 responses:

“ My 6yr old is a highly sensitive child and cried going to school. I see her running, playing and laughing now. That is just the tip of the iceberg.” “My son has flourished, he was disappearing before our eyes…it sounds strange but in a way lockdown was a blessing for us in regards to my lovely boy” “his anxiety has almost vanished and we are learning to love life again” “being able to learn at their own pace…has really helped them rebuild their confidence and redevelop a love of learning”

Not every response was a feather in the cap for home education. Some parents noticed that their children were missing school friends, the structure and some were concerned about missing learning on the run up to their exams:

“ Yes but annoyingly he wants to go back to school.” “Mine cant wait to go back. We will be going back to school as soon as they open the doors” “want to get them back into a bit of a routine worried they will be behind when they go back” “being an only child can be devastating at times like this”

Overall the great majority of parents expressed enthusiasm for the home education option and emphatically expressed their joy at the improvement in mental health of their children. There are consistent themes generated from parents responses including gaps in children’s education, increased mental and emotional wellbeing, a reduction in anxiety and anxious behaviour and an increase in overall happiness and relaxation. Some parents have looked into the legality of deregistering their children while others desperately ask “how do I go about this? What do I need to do?” It is clear from over 300 responses that parents are choosing to deregister children primarily because of a marked improvement in the wellbeing and mental health status of their children and young people.

Clare Haughey MSP was appointed minister for mental health in Scotland in June 2018, her role takes responsibility for child and adolescent mental health. As both the Scottish and UK government take steps towards bringing “all” children back into the classroom, one might ask Clare Haughey MSP, the question “if parents are observing such a marked improvement in their children’s mental health, can we not elevate home education to be a real alternative educational choice for families?”

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