How not to mess it up this time around

Here we go again. Homeschooling is once more obligatory for all children rather than a parental choice for a tiny minority.

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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?


Don’t try to replicate the classroom at home. Photograph: iStock
Don’t try to replicate the classroom at home. Photograph: iStock

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.”

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