As the first week of the new school term in England, Wales and Northern Ireland begins, teachers and parents are making important adaptations to ‘ordinary’ school life. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed so much for even the very youngest children and ensuring that everyone is safe is a priority for everyone involved.
In the weeks leading up to this new term, the government has appeared very concerned that some of us might decide not to send our children back into the classrooms. In fact, the rhetoric around the new term appears to have deliberately played on parental guilt about the best options for our children. Over the past month the Prime Minister has written that we have a ‘moral duty’ to get our kids back to school, Professor Chris Whitty has told us that not returning to school will cause ‘mental and physical ill health in the long run’ and, just this weekend the education secretary wrote an open letter to parents warning them that not sending their children to school would result in a ‘huge dent in their future life chances’.
Well, I have thoughts. Firstly, I’m a parent. And yes, I will be sending my small person back into her preschool this week. She loves it, she enjoys interacting with other children, I’m confident that the school are doing everything they can to keep the kids safe, and (here comes the mum guilt) it allows me to work. Secondly, I was home educated. And, although I can only really speak for myself, the ultimate result of my education is that I’m a hard-working, tax-paying, home-owning, book-writing parent with a PhD and a host of other opportunities stretching out in front of me.
Ever since I was being taught outside the school system back in the 80s and 90s, home education has become increasingly popular and more parents see it is a viable option for raising their children. As of 2018, 68,000 children in the UK were registered as being home educated. In March of this year the i newspaper reported a dramatic increase in the numbers of children who were being home educated even before lockdown began. They also noted that their figures only reflected the numbers of children who were actually registered with their local authorities as there is no legal obligation to notify the authorities of your choice to not send a child to school.
I’m not here to argue that there is one correct way to educate your child or that school is better than home education, or vice versa. What I do want to show is that there are alternatives to school, and that choosing a different method by which to educate your child doesn’t support the current governmental rhetoric of damaging your child’s entire future by doing so.
Many children thrive at school and I know so many wonderful teachers who love their work. For some children, school offers them not only a place of education and somewhere to be social, but also safety away from an abusive home. The data relating to the numbers of children who suffer abuse are difficult to ascertain as so much of it is hidden, but schools do play an important role in giving children a place to be safe and to ask for help. The statistics on poverty are clearer than those on abuse and schools also provide support to the poorest children in our society. As of 2018 some 4.6 million children were living in poverty and many are reliant on free school meals. Marcus Rashford’s current campaign to highlight and combat childhood food poverty has shown the importance of schools to the health of some of our most vulnerable children.
But there is another side to this argument and school is not always the best place for some children. In spite of the numbers of amazing teachers we have, schools just cannot be all things to all people. Some children are severely bullied and some have different educational needs which means that some parents are forced to explore other options outside of the school system.
And even when the decision to educate a child at home has been made, it’s far from an easy option. Many parents would love to have more control over their children’s education or to spend more time with their kids. But home education is a full-time job which receives no additional support and is near impossible to achieve when both parents work. Lockdown has given many parents an insight into what it’s like to be responsible for how their children learn and, if my social media timelines are anything to go by, a lot of those parents are desperate to send their kids back to school. But other families have enjoyed it and have seen their children blossom away from the classroom.
My own experience is that home education provided me with opportunities which I wouldn’t have had otherwise. My background was working-class and I don’t think I would have achieved half of the things I have in the regular school system. I read everything I could get my hands on, I passed my first GCSE when I was 14 and my first ‘A’ Level when I was 15. I was lucky to grow up in a very loving and supportive family environment and my parents made it very clear that my siblings and I could do anything we wanted to. I’m very grateful for that and I hope that my daughter will grow up feeling the same way, no matter the manner of her education. She’s in the school system now and that’s because it’s the best thing for us at the moment but I wouldn’t hesitate to explore other options if circumstances changed in the future.
Gavin Williamson’s comment about not returning to school causing a ‘huge dent in [children’s] future life chances’ really hit me this weekend. It was not only a slap to all this year’s ‘A’ Level students from within the school system who had their lives put on hold by a government algorithm which was designed to combat grade inflation and ended up disproportionately penalising those from poorer backgrounds. But it was also an insult to all of those home educators who work hard to provide the very best for their children and who raise adults with bright and exciting futures. I’m really proud of my education and the parents who supported me through it.
The bottom line is that there is no simple right way to decide the best way to educate our children. All of our small people are different and it’s impossible to know the best method for each of them. We can only do our best and make sure that we support other parents in their choices to raise the next generation of brilliant adults.