Here we go again. Homeschooling is once more obligatory for all children rather than a parental choice for a tiny minority.
For students, parents and staff alike, some of whom still bear scars from last year’s prolonged schools closure, the prospect is daunting. We can hope that what was learned during the first lockdown will make it a little easier, yet there are so many variables within homes and schools, and among individual students, teachers and families, this won’t be the case for everybody.
There’s no doubt that primary schools are better placed to take account of learnings from last spring, says the president-elect of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, Brian O’Doherty.
“There is the accumulated wisdom from that first period of enforced closure. Teachers’ confidence and competence in using the various media that are available have grown.”
But the principal of a Deis primary school in Limerick, Tiernan O’Neill, believes that we’re in much the same place as we were last March.
“We don’t have clear communication; we don’t have clarity; we don’t have forward planning. It is an absolute catastrophe. We have learned absolutely nothing.”
As he and his staff at Corpus Christi Primary School in Moyross strive to look for bespoke solutions for their pupils, online learning is low on the list of priorities for families dealing with so many disadvantages in life, he points out, and children need to be in school.
We’re better prepared, psychologically and physically, says psychotherapist Richard Hogan, who works with second-level students in Dublin, but there’s “fatigue around it all too”.
The chief executive of the National Parents’ Council (NPC) Primary, Áine Lynch, has heard some parents say they’re not even going to try to do homeschooling this month because it was such a battle last time. But she would urge those who feel they just can’t do it again, to try to engage, as she expects children and parents will have a different home-learning experience this time.
So, what are some of those lessons learned and how might it be different – or not – this time?
Lesson 1: Don’t replicate the classroom
Satisfaction with how schools stepped up last time partly depended on where parents were on a spectrum from expecting to be able to sit their child down in front of a livestreamed class for a few hours to those grateful for some emailed suggestions on learning activities they could do at home
Primary-school children are not independent learners, and it was clear from studies published last summer, says Lynch, that remote teaching worked more satisfactorily at secondary level.
“The core of primary school teaching is interactivity, group work, engagement, communication – and you can’t get that if a child is sitting on its own in a room with a lap top.”
Accepting that only so much can be done in a remote situation helps reduce frustration all round. Fun learning through school, or parental, assignments that include PE, art, simple baking and self-directed projects for older children, are more likely to maintain family well-being than constant filling out of work sheets, which is “pretty soul-destroying”, as one parent remarks.
Primary school principals want parents to realise that “it is impossible to replicate the classroom or school experience at home and they shouldn’t be putting themselves under pressure to do it,” says Brian O’Doherty. While structure is good, there should also be flexibility.
“You can only do your best and we know there is a wide range of parents in terms of abilities to support their children’s learning.”
We did hear of one father who adopted a different persona of “Mr” for homeschooling last time and then reverted to Dad for the rest of the day – a fun ploy to which his son responded well.
Lesson 2: Prioritise family sanity
Keeping a younger child “on task” is a challenge for most parents, and there’s a multiplying effect if you have two or more. Meanwhile the office is ringing or it’s time for a Zoom meeting.
Joanna Jackson, who has one child in third class at primary school in Dublin, as well as two in first and second year at secondary school, believes that as a parent you have to judge not only what works for your child but also what works for you and for your other commitments.
“You have to prioritise sanity.” Last time, she says she put herself under ferocious pressure to get through everything, as did her youngest child, and they both ended up getting frustrated.
“After a while I realised that me getting impatient and him getting upset was really achieving nothing. So, I cherry-picked the stuff that appealed to him after covering the basics, or sometimes even gave him a choice.”
She is resigned to what lies ahead. “Home school is not good for the kids but I would be very loath to send them in right now.”
However, she is hopeful that, on the basis of the steep learning curve the schools have been through, the remote teaching “will be a bit more creative, a bit more engaging, this time round”.
Lesson 3: Don’t overload children
The ways in which schools could support children and their learning evolved over the last lockdown, says Brian O’Doherty, who is principal of St Patrick’s Loreto Primary School in Bray, Co Wicklow, and it wasn’t just about the learning.
He was struck by the importance of maintaining the connection for the children with teachers as part of a wider community.
Also, the need not to overload children, and indeed their parents, with suggested activities and tasks.
Third, “the importance of a balanced approach, which took account of the children’s well-being as much as their intellectual development, and supported their learning.”
Lesson 4: Daily, not weekly, tasks
The fall-off in participation that schools observed as last spring’s closure dragged on will, O’Doherty hopes, be avoided this time through wider use of online platforms now more familiar to parents and students.
These allow for daily updating of tasks, as opposed to emailing of work for longer periods “which can be off putting and overwhelming”, he acknowledges. It is also easier for parents to access materials and give teacher feedback, a lack of which was a common complaint last time from parents.
It’s probably optimistic to think school closures will not be extended beyond the end of January, though at least the infrastructure is there now for reopening, says O’Doherty. O’Neill worries that if high community transmission rates persist and unless there is clarity soon on the vaccination programme for school staff, schools could be in limbo, “not just for a matter of weeks but for a number of months”.
Lesson 5: Better communication eases tension
Schools know what it is like to be on the receiving end of poor communication as so many have complained about the “drip feeding” of crucial information through the media over the past 10 months. Yet parents and students have had similar issues with some schools.
Expect improvements this time. For a start there is likely to be more use of video sessions, on the back of more technology training and greater appreciation that it really helps children to see their teachers’ faces. More checking in and responses to completed work would also be welcomed by parents and children.
Lesson 6: Consider the digital divide
Online learning has further widened the gap between the haves and the have nots, says Tiernan O’Neill.
“If a child is dealing with homelessness, abuse, addiction, mental health issues, online learning is not a priority. If a parent has three or four children in one-room emergency accommodation, how are they going to engage with online learning? It’s pie in the sky stuff.”
Last week his staff in Moyross were contacting parents and seeing if they had digital devices for their children and, if not, were trying to source them. The school fund-raised last time to buy ones but still couldn’t meet the need.
The NPC has also been highlighting how children who are struggling with educational disadvantage are less likely to have the supports and resources at home that they need to engage with remote learning. For vulnerable children, schools are a refuge too.
If well-educated parents in warm, large, well-equipped houses found homeschooling tough last time, the difficulties are compounded for disadvantaged families and those rearing children with additional needs. While the Government’s attempt to keep the latter in school foundered on safety concerns, the plight of the socio-economically disadvantaged wasn’t even on that agenda.
Brian O’Doherty says they learned not to presume that just because a household has devices, an individual child will have access to one, because the needs of other family members might come first.
Much of what has been said above also applies to secondary schools, even though teenagers can get on with work on their own (that doesn’t mean they will).
Research on the mental-health impact of the first lockdown highlighted just how acute the loss of mixing with peers is for them at a stage of life when they’re supposed to be breaking clear of parental supervision. Students due to sit State exams this summer are under particular pressure.
Lesson 1: Reduce uncertainty
For the class of 2020, not knowing for a period of time whether or not they would be sitting the Leaving Certificate was a huge stress and distraction. Now the class of 2021 is going through it too, with the added disadvantage that they missed a big chunk of their fifth-year classes.
“Clear and accurate information provided sooner rather than later is an obvious imperative this time around,” says Prof Sinead McGilloway, the founder and director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University. It surveyed almost 1,000 Leaving Certificate students during the last closure and found many were struggling with their overall health and wellbeing and were faring worse than a previous sample of sixth-year students surveyed in 2015.
The “on or off” uncertainty around State exams has been removed for their peers in the UK with the announcement there that A levels, GCSEs and the Scottish equivalents have all been cancelled. Here they wait, split among themselves on whether a repeat of predicted grades would be better or not.
Lesson 2: Assume State exams will go ahead
Emer Neville, communications officer with the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union and a 17-year-old Leaving Certificate student, would personally like to sit the exams, having seen her sister go through the alternative last year. She can’t see how it could work this time, as fifth-year students have missed so much school and teachers have a lot less testing to go on.
She acknowledges the only certainty that could come now would be a decision to cancel, so in wanting them to go ahead, she has to sit with the uncertainty. Meanwhile, a more immediate question mark hangs over the mocks, due to start in most schools at the beginning of February.
Richard Hogan, author of Parenting the Screenager, works with highly motivated students at the Institute of Education in Dublin but they too struggle to stay focused.
“When the landscape is so uncertain it diminishes the possibility of setting a goal you can work towards.” He advises them to assume the exams will go ahead because “all the work you put into it will stand to you”.
Just control what you can control, he tells them – your study and routine. Last time around, students admitted they were rolling out of bed to online classes, or not moving even that far before opening the laptop, which did nothing for their capacity or motivation to learn.
Lesson 3: Give students structure
Neville believes a more consistent approach to remote teaching is needed, as it varied so much from school to school last time. Her personal experience in fifth year was that teachers would send notes but not always correct work sent back, leaving her “hoping for the best” that she was understanding what she was trying to learn. In only one of her subjects was there online engagement.
An “actual structure” outlined by the Department of Education on what and how schools should be teaching would help a lot, she suggests.
Last time, “I would wake up at 1pm and do my homework at 4pm. I know girls who didn’t do anything – they felt they didn’t need to because nobody was checking in.”
Lesson 4: Ditch the old timetable
Some schools went to the other extreme of trying to replicate the school timetable online, which became very draining too.
“Alternating sessions of class contact with individual study seemed more doable, as both students and teachers tire more easily in an online classroom context,” says the president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Beatrice Dooley.
It would make sense to use these weeks as revision time, she says, as it is extremely challenging to cover new material online, especially if some students cannot avail of online teaching.
“For this to work, we need an urgent audit of the curriculum of all subjects and a significant haircut to examination papers for Junior Cert and Leaving Cert, assuming the State exams happen this year.”
Lesson 5: Be mental-health aware
The Maynooth University research suggests that both parents and schools should try to be more alert and sensitive to issues of wellbeing in students at this time, says McGilloway. She recommends introducing regular check-ins or initiating conversations where appropriate and, in the case of the schools, ensuring that SPHE/wellbeing classes are not postponed or cancelled in favour of other curriculum subjects.
Dooley advises parents to first of all manage their own stress levels, by finding space for some joy and escape from the anxiety, and then, with their own “oxygen mask sorted”, encourage their offspring to do the same.
This too will pass.
HELP IS AT HAND
There are people to contact if the pressure of homeschooling gets too much. Apart from staff at your child’s school, other supports include Parentline (parentline.ie) on 1890-927277, or the National Parents’ Council (npc.ie) helpline 01-8874477.
Both RTÉ and TG4 will again be providing a daily slice of school for primary-level children, which was a welcome breather for parents last time. From Monday January 11th, RTÉ’s Homeschool Hub is on RTÉ2 , 10am-noon Monday-Friday, and Afterschool Hub is at 3.20pm. From Monday, January 18th, TG4’s Cúla4 is screened Monday-Thursday at 10am, repeated at 4pm.