Why there is no viable alternative to a full return to school for every child next month

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Terry Mackie

Remote learning is not much good. That is why we have to get all our children back to school next month, whatever the situation regarding Covid-19. It’s not the subtleties of ‘the science’ or the angels dancing on safety pinheads that forced this decision. It’s the no-brainer, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face reality that parents can’t take much more and all learners are losing out badly by staying at home.

Last month, and after nearly four months of lockdown and just a fortnight after our learners returned for a third of the week to school, the Welsh Government finally ordered that all schools would be fully opened in the new September term. Rather melodramatically (many days after her English and Celtic counterparts had pronounced) and to the frustration of many of our headteachers (I was worried one of my Twitter headteacher friends was going to blow a gasket), Education Secretary Kirsty Williams announced the full schools’ return just a few days before the end of this accursed term.

She really had no alternative. The evidence in Wales, the UK and across the world had stacked up so heavily that enough was enough and the much greater risk was in carrying on the remote learning catastrophe.

‘What to do about schools from September’ had gravitated stealthily to the centre of our government’s policy for the whole pandemic. It has, regrettably, also been played as a political football in the contest with the Westminster Government. Electoral advantage has taken priority during the Coronavirus crisis, as the May 2021 elections loom ever larger.

That said, Welsh Labour has played a blinder (government communication has been outstanding), since just before this February they were, to general astonishment, trailing The Conservatives following a ‘Boris bounce’ after the December 2019 general election. Now Labour is back on top in the polls, even people in England think they have done a better job handling the crisis than the UK Government and Mark Drakeford has emerged from popular invisibility to be recognised as a safe pair of hands. He can well afford his new cheesy grin.

All this may matter lots in the Cardiff Bay bubble but what really counts is not the political losses or gains but what has been happening in families up and down the country as health concerns, job loss and insecurity have been accompanied by extraordinary educational blight during the weeks and months from 23rd March to 29th June.

Parents have really struggled to remote school hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. It has been a massively difficult and harmful time for most families for education. Mums and dads cannot take any more.

 

Overwhelmed

Welsh, UK and international data evidences that remote learning just does not cut it. The truth is it has been dire. It is third-rate education at best. In June London’s Institute of Education reported that children in Wales were getting less education than other parts of the UK. A fifth of our learners were doing nothing at all.

Welsh-medium pupils from purely anglophone families would have found it very tough. Some English parents were describing the experience as ‘hell’ by July as they formed their own lobby group called ‘Sept for Schools’. A Clarks Shoes survey analysing Google revealed 49,500 searches a month, ‘how to work out percentages’ was the most common maths question parents look for answers to online. Parents thought they were ‘working from home’ but many soon realised they ‘were back to school’ and they couldn’t remember much of use to their children. That’s if they were actually engaging in remote learning.

An NFER report dated 16 June following a survey of 1,233 senior leaders and 1,821 teachers

concluded that, on average, only 55 per cent of their pupils’ parents are engaged with their children’s home learning. Less help was given to older and/or more deprived children.

Daniel Willingham, an eminent global expert on education and psychology, wrote recently in the Washington Post that distance learning had gone ‘poorly’. 20% of parents surveyed said their children spent less than an hour a day on schoolwork. A new survey conducted by Muddy Stilettos Best Schools Guide identified nearly half of parents are dissatisfied with their child’s progress and development since lockdown (cited by Educational Technology). That survey included private schooling.

Victoria Student Representative Council has just reported that 46% of students surveyed felt they had fallen behind during lockdown, in spite of being sometimes overwhelmed by the remote workload provided by their schools. It’s the same story all over the world. Parents of my own acquaintance complain that live/Zoom lessons would have been a great help. My tennis friend who has done nothing but provide this ‘live teaching’ for his private school says he has no idea if the kids are engaging in his lessons!

Professor Lindsay Paterson concluded that Scottish pupils were getting an average of about 2 lessons per day -and only half of children’s work was then checked by teachers. That might have improved if their government had got its ‘digital’ out. None of the 25,000 laptops bought by the Scottish government to help with home schooling during the lockdown had been handed out to pupils by early July.

Hard

Remote schooling is almost impossible for teachers to organise effectively. Parents do not have the time, the skill-set or sometimes the equipment to support many children appropriately. Learners have in most cases struggled and sometimes switched off completely.

As a grandparent I have tried to do my bit, with Facetime Maths for one and Science for another. Each online lesson took me an hour to plan and mark. That’s how hard it is for someone who has been a teacher and who still knows his way round the curriculum and materials. God bless parents.

Nobody should begrudge the pay rise for teachers just announced of 3.1%. It is a high-skill profession best carried out in classrooms. Whatever sacrifices must be made elsewhere as Covid-19 cases rise or fall, there is no viable alternative to a full return to school for every child next month. The evidence on the ground and round the world shows it should have been sooner.

Terry Mackie’s 2019 book on Welsh schooling, The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light, is available by emailing him on iandtmac@me.com.

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