What is there to be learned about the importance of community education from the contrasting lockdown experiences of families in Scotland and England?
What’s been said?
On 27 March the Tes published “Home-educated children were forgotten during lockdown” – a personal account by Dr Susan Ireland, a home educator based in Scotland, about the sorry impact of lockdown on primary-aged home educated children there.
Dr Ireland debunks the assumption that lockdown affected those who had always home educated much less than other families, stating that “nothing could have been further from the truth.”
The first lockdown had been hard on all Scottish families, but the problems worsened for HE parents when the majority of children returned to school in August. At that point HE groups were classed by the Scottish government together with recreational activities such as Scouts and Brownies, in a failure to acknowledge that “our groups are our core educational provision, not some optional extra.”
So with indoor spaces off limits and most public spaces closed, outdoor gatherings became the only option. Dr Ireland invites readers to consider the implications of this in the Scottish climate at that time of year: “Learning outside is fun, but not having any indoor base really limits what you can deliver. Many things are impossible in the rain, wind and mud, with no electricity or shelter.”
As rain repeatedly stopped play, morale plummeted; “Our new normal was an endless sea of negatives… Happy children dissolved into sad, dispirited and sick shadows of themselves.”
At the time of writing, the Scottish government had still provided no date when these restrictions would be lifted, despite the fact that primary school buildings were reopened earlier in March.
Coincidentally, in England Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, had submitted a Written Question (22 March). She asked the Secretary of State for Education “whether his Department plans to issue additional covid-19 guidance on restrictions on group education activities for home schooled children.”
In his response (25 March) Minister of State for Education Nick Gibb demonstrated a welcome recognition of reality, especially when compared to his Scottish counterparts, though of course he went on to stipulate that all such group activities should be carried out in line with Government guidance.
“The Government recognises the important role group education activities play in providing enrichment opportunities which support the education of electively home educated children and young people. We also acknowledge the benefits they provide to the development of social skills and attitudes which promote their wellbeing and enhance their physical and mental health.”
That the Government specifically referenced EHE in its 8 March 2021, out-of-school settings guidance is also a breakthrough. The second of three “essential purposes” for which such settings are allowed to open reads:
“being used by electively home educating parents as part of their arrangements for their child to receive a suitable full-time education.”
The day after the Minister’s answer was published, the guidance for out-of-school settings was updated. The new version is available here.
Why does it matter?
Susan Ireland’s main point is significant. Whilst the bookwork side of life might have remained intact, “home is not the centre of home education” for many families. She correctly noted that most seek out “real-world experiences” in one form or another. Hall-based meets also have a vital part to play, where HE children engage in shared learning experiences with their peers. Such things she calls “the nuts and bolts of a full, happy childhood.”
Her article concludes with a plea for equity for these “forgotten children… the only under-12s in the country who were expected to continue with online platforms.”
By contrast it was heartening to hear some acknowledgement by the English Government of the value of group educational activities for HE’s, particularly alongside the shambolic Education Committee’s Inquiry.
Thinking more generally about Ireland’s concerns, it is clear that the public understanding of what home education actually entails is woefully inaccurate. Of course home educators themselves know that relationship, real world experiences and shared learning opportunities are vital components of a rounded “home education.”
They also know that you don’t have to be in the house all the time. However, the public’s perception of HE has unfortunately been shaped by disparaging media reports, or more recently by hearing of parents’ negative reactions to an enforced period of schooling their children at home – what could be worse? Unhelpful images of isolated, unsocialised children spring to mind for many when they hear the same words.
So what can be done to correct this caricature of an educational pathway that’s really positive and life-affirming for many families? The pandemic has given the whole topic a much higher profile. Surely it’s time for home educating parents to take back the narrative and present a confident and positive view of what home education really is – as well as what it isn’t.
Bearing in mind Susan Ireland’s point about home not necessarily being the centre of home education, do we need to be thinking of new ways to describe our educational lifestyle of choice? Family-led learning, maybe?
What can I do?
Could you deal a blow to some of the unhelpful stereotypes associated with home education by coming up with alternative ways of describing what it is that you do?
When you’re talking about your family’s learning journey with those unfamiliar with the realities of an HE life, are you able to convey something of the richness of being able to draw on a variety of community resources and people to supplement reading, discussions or topics studied in the home?
Whatever you do, try to counter the impression that HE means an always-and-only-in-the-house education.