The New World of Home Learning, by Ian Cunningham

It is 2 April 2020 and we were in the early stages in England of the coronavirus or Covid-19 crisis.

Schools have been closed and many problems are occurring from this. One example is around the well-being of children. Walker, 2020, comments that even at this early stages of the crisis, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and its phone service, Childline, have been inundated with calls from worried children. For instance, she said that,

“Last week, Childline delivered over 50 counselling sessions with children who are having suicidal thoughts, exacerbated by coronavirus as they felt trapped and isolated.” (1)

Many children said that they felt increasingly lonely and vulnerable and mental health issues were being exacerbated by the crisis. However, even amongst the majority that have not previously had mental health problems, it’s clear that these problems are growing because of the concerns about isolation and the worries about their future.

A number of commentators have indicated the error of schools attempting to replicate the normal schooling model in the home. Merrow, 2020, comments:

“A lot of school systems seem to be reflexively behaving as if they could simply transplant school’s routines to the home.” (2)

In reading advice given by, and for, schools about dealing with the fact that children are not in school it is all oriented to continuing to utilise the schooling model, but in a new environment. It is clearly in most cases failing. Woolcock, 2020, cites a mother of three saying:

“We’ve been sent a timetable that details each activity and even the amount of minutes it should take. I feel stressed, just looking at how much should be crammed into the day.” (P. 9)

Merrow is particularly good at critiquing the notion that the current crisis demands home-schooling. He cogently points out that is an opportunity for home learning. One that I would obviously support. The attempt merely to translate school systems into a home environment is clearly not working and the problems will undoubtedly get worse.

When the crisis occurred, we closed our building, but our stance with parents and students is that the building is shut, but the college is open. We immediately created a new online environment with three Zoom (video-conferencing) channels that allowed a great deal of interaction between learning advisers and the 38 students on roll. The use of platforms such as Discord has allowed for lot of chat and interaction between the students away from the video-conferencing environment. Good old-fashioned phones and emails have also played a part.

The important feature of this is that students were able to continue the learning community in this new environment. The feedback from students has been mainly positive. After the morning Zoom sessions there’s a lunchtime open meeting where anyone can enter a designated Zoom channel and raise anything they want. Students are often just wanting to connect with others and continuing the relationships that they’ve developed when the building was open. Most feel that it works really well and indeed one of our autistic students actually feels it’s better in some respects since she is someone who finds noise and closeness of others a problem.

Parents have started to adjust to this new world and the following is a comment at the end of our first week of working:

“Just have to say how amazing it is – despite tech hitches and Discord/booking in confusion – that the SML College team have turned EVERYTHING around so quickly to create a really broad and accessible online system.

First full week for J [son] done and I just wanted to feed back to you that he is in a really good place. And a big part of this has been the opportunity for consistent face to face contact with college advisors and students. Of course, some teething issues around self managing at home and getting information about session timings etc but considering how huge the task at hand was to provide everyone access to an online alternative I think what you have achieved is really remarkable. Congratulations.

The week has also been a time to suss out what I need to do in order to support J accessing the college’s offer – so I also really appreciate all the communication with staff around how the new system works.

I’ll continue to feed back to staff of course as things crop up but just wanted to say a big direct thank you to everybody for their dedication and adaptability!’”

At one level, we are just replicating the Self Managed Learning mode in a new environment where we can’t all be physically together. I would reiterate that it only works because we have a learning community where people know each other and are trusting and open and prepared to work together.

Clearly for some students the transition is proving a bit more difficult than others. But one of the points that we want to make is that in the world that we are operating in we do need to be able to connect with people without direct physical contact. Video-conferencing has been around for some time and it’s clear that it will become more important, given the impact on the climate of human travel.

Also improvements in air quality has already been identified as travel has been reduced. Whatever the future holds, after this crisis, it is clear that the trend that was already there for increased homeworking by adults is going to continue. And indeed it is desperately needed.

However, it only works if there is already that sense of trust and comradeship and connection that is the key part of a community way of working. It seems valuable that students who are not finding it easy do learn to struggle with this environment, because it is going to be part of the future for them. And we are back to the problem that, even if schools used some of this technology, because they are generally not caring communities that empower students there will still be increased mental health problems for their students.

Another development from the closing of schools for the majority of children has been the large growth in parents booking one-to-one tuition via online arrangements. Clearly done well this can respond to individual needs, though, evidence suggests that a lot of it is around preparing young people for exams and therefore sticking to existing curricula. The other problem with this mode is that, of course, it misses the community dimension. As I pointed out earlier in this book it’s crucial for young people in this age group to relate to their peers and the notion that parents can fully provide for their offspring by one-to-one tuition is not likely to be realised.

This new environment is challenging teachers to be open to it to rethink their role. In the Guardian newspaper Teachers Network of 29 March, 2020, it quoted a head teacher who was looking after a small number of key worker children who were allowed into the school. Currently schools are expected to stay open just for the small number of children who whose parents are seen as key workers, such as those in the health service. This headteacher commented:

“It just seems a very calm and lovely – a bit of an oasis. Children have never had this experience before, where they get to just play in their primary school. It’s going to be strange. I’m no longer headteacher, I’m a leader of the playscheme.” (3)

Perhaps that head teacher might contemplate on what the possibilities are when the school reopens. Somehow I think quite a lot will just revert to what they’ve been doing before, and may even use the fact that many children have struggled while out of school to justify the notion of recreating school as it was before. It would be a great shame as there is an opportunity here for people to rethink. Only time will tell if that happens.

This is an excerpt from a soon-to-be published book by Ian Cunningham, Chair of Governors at the Self-Managed Learning College