education

Parents find all-day Zoom less captivating than they expected | Laura McInerney


In lockdown 1 last year, social media was alive with parents complaining that they were being forced to homeschool with little more than an unfathomable worksheet and the occasional email from school. “British teachers are barely trying,” moaned the Economist magazine. So the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, must have thought he was pulling a blinder when he announced that in big lockdown 2 all children would be entitled to at least “three to five hours of teaching per day”.

Unfortunately, as has so often been the case in this pandemic, the reality has not quite turned out as parents perhaps hoped.

First, when people hear their child will receive “teaching” while at home, it leads to an expectation of Ms or Sir beamed into their house, delivering the same lessons via Zoom that might otherwise have been delivered in school. Some of the problems with that should have been predictable. Lord Andrew Adonis would know. He spent the start of lockdown 1 whipping parents up into a frenzy over the lack of streamed video lessons in state schools, urging them to complain to Ofsted. Two months later, when the House of Lords switched online, Lord Adonis moaned that only one in four speeches could be heard properly. Oh, the irony.

Schools and families have the same online issues, exacerbated by the fact that some people taking part are five years old, find it hard to concentrate and would like a nap. Well, yes, OK, like some members of the Lords.

Having every child simultaneously learning online each day has left more families scrambling for devices, as it is now harder for siblings to share. The latest research on the digital divide, by the Sutton Trust, shows that even though the government brags about delivering 700,000 laptops to schools, inequalities have worsened, especially in primary schools.

Some organisations have stepped in to help, with mobile providers now offering free data deals for families in need, and the BBC broadcasting educational television shows each day for those without internet access.

The schools inspectorate, Ofsted, nominated by Williamson to police his expectations, has clearly stated that “live lessons are not always best”. Pre-recorded lessons, live chat with teachers, and the ability to upload work for marking, can be equally effective. Textbooks and worksheets are also fine.

Meanwhile, as politicians issue their edicts and then change their minds, schools are just getting on with balancing needs. They know, for example, that being able to see pupils in their home environment is important, even just occasionally. One teacher told the sad tale of a student who had taken part in online learning for months, without turning on her video. When she returned to school in September she was plainly suffering from an eating disorder, and the school had been unable to step in.

Rules of “cameras always on”, however, as some schools are doing, can leave children vulnerable too. It is embarrassing enough if your parents are hoarders, let alone having your classmates stare at piles of junk while you try to learn maths. There are tales of naked parents streaking past in the background, as they dash from shower to bedroom. And good luck if you were hoping to have a serious work call at the time when your child is expected to perform a live music lesson.

So schools are being inventive. Some have adopted “cameras on” for a short morning registration period followed by pre-recorded lessons in the day, balancing privacy and device-sharing. Virtual backgrounds can also help. Some schools still require pupils to wear uniform when at home to reduce the pressure to own lots of clothes.

Under big lockdown 2, children are much more likely to have a healthy diet of home learning. Not because of the government, but despite it. Hurray, please, for the school leaders, teachers – and parents – who are making it happen.





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