‘We blame Covid but it’s our fault children have switched off’

Emma White considers why schools often fail to nurture pupils’ love of learning

Published in Independent School Management Plus

Earlier this year, we received the news we had all been waiting for. My 18-year-old son had been offered a conditional place at Christ’s College, Cambridge to study history and modern languages. An immensely proud moment for all of us. To most, he’s just one of the lucky few that managed to edge ahead in a hotly contested race for a chance to study at one of our most acclaimed universities. Yet the truth is different.

My son has been home educated since Year 7. And I mean home educated in the rawest sense of the word – no tutors, no school trips, no Duke of Edinburgh, no extra curricular activities, no laptop – but most importantly, no pressure.

Looking back at our home educational journey, it made me question what exactly it is that has made him, and his younger brother, so passionately enthusiastic about their learning.

They “left” school in Y7 and Y5 – good schools too, and fell into the hands of a one man band parent outfit (me) who could not possibly compete with the intellectual stimulation and provision afforded by our best schools. But it didn’t matter. We got there in the end and the reasons are easy to see.

For all the decorative and enticing educational bolt-ons schools offer to children, in a bid to lure fee-paying parents, school education lacks one vital element that home education can offer  – an immersion, without pressure, into a world of knowledge.

It comes through discussion – conversation that bleeds through the school day, beyond the classroom to meal times and family walks. The crucial difference is that the demarcation line between school and home disappears.

Speaking to friends who have been plunged into lockdown induced online learning with their mostly disinterested teens, they talk of their schooling with inertia and boredom. Some even tell me that they feel school has trespassed into their family life, as if the process of learning is some evil force that has dared to encroach on home turf. Not opportunity but tedium masquerading as PowerPoint. It astonishes me that school and home are viewed so separately, that there is a subconscious need to keep them apart.

But why? Do we ask too much, make days too long because we don’t dare to stop and consider an alternative way? I am shocked when parents of very young children at renowned prep schools, where my own sons were pupils, tell me that their distance learning is a virtual experience of a school day permeated with remote, insidious discipline, such as wearing uniform. Children in primary schools tied to screens and given homework.

Any home educator will tell you that two hours of learning a day is enough for a child in KS2 but I hear of children being exhausted by schools frantically trying to re-enact exactly what they have always done – but from home.

Parents need to be satisfied and rightly so — they are paying the bills — but the poor children are fed up.

It could be argued that home education success comes down to one-to-one learning. That’s nothing new, we know this because we place huge value on small class sizes but I don’t think it is all just about numbers. One crucial benefit for us was the fact that we opted out of the race — we normalised school. We didn’t know if we were superstars or plods, we just enjoyed relaxed, casual learning and it grew to be our way of life. School and home seamlessly merged into one and in doing thus, we forged ahead.

I see it every day with the schools we help at Mark My Papers (MMP), the fanaticism about data drops, the angst and pressure we put teachers under to put data first and the more important, “how to improve” reports, second – and this angst permeates everything as it bleeds into the very atmosphere of our schools.

But we are losing sight of really what it is all about – enjoyment of learning and development of new skills. Even if you stand up and shout down the argument, saying that all your students are passionately committed and keeping up the pace, let us remember that we’ve had to cancel exams because a huge lobby confesses that remote learning has meant no learning.

Covid may be the dog we choose to kick but the fact is, children have switched off and that is our fault.

For me, the Cambridge offer was justification for a decision I really didn’t want to take — to educate my boys at home and encourage them to take ownership of their own studies. Somehow, we have kept the love of learning alive and it has enabled us to reach unfathomable heights from a very disadvantaged position. And why? Because they’ve got to want to do it – and fortunately we created an environment where they still do.

Schools now need to do the same.

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