Children’s mental health and motivation has taken a huge hit during lockdown, according to a just released Oxford University study. The solution to this problem, like many in education, lies not in school, but at home – and that is where our investments and reforms must be focused.
This is not what many parents want to hear: ambitious parents spend fortunes, take on huge mortgages, and even change their religion to get their children into the ‘best’ school possible. But based on years of experience in schools across the UK and the world, I can tell you this is a case of ‘The Emperor’s New School’. Schools generally don’t cause student success (or failure) – they merely take the credit (or the blame) for it.
Better schools do produce better students, and more successful adults. But is this causation or correlation? Of course, more resources, better teachers and smaller class sizes are correlated with better educational outcomes. But so is extra tuition, self-learning and parental support. Similarly, the lack of these things outside the classroom causes failure inside it.
It’s easy to demand more school funding and teacher training; more difficult to imagine more parental funding and mum and dad training.
But it is what happens outside the classroom that makes the most difference inside it. To many parents, this is heresy: I know that when a child struggles, the parents are all-too-ready to blame the teachers. By the same measure, when a school produces a star student, they are more than happy to take the credit – especially if they need marketing collateral to justify their fees.
But socio-economic status of a school’s neighbourhood – and all the trappings and expectations that come with that – is far more important than what actually happens inside the school gates.
Sixteen per cent of schools in the most deprived areas are ‘outstanding’, compared with 37 per cent in the least deprived, according to Ofsted. It is important to remember that one of the key statistics Ofsted uses to make these assessments is exam results. In short, better-off students get better grades. If we picked them up and put them in the ‘worst’ schools, they would still do relatively well, because although they’d be attending a different school, they would still be living in the same home.
The government spends approximately £46 billion on secondary education. Parents spend approximately £6 billion on secondary education private tuition. That private tuition disproportionately goes to students who are in the ‘best’ schools – but the unfair advantage those schools receive won’t be mentioned in their Ofsted reports.
Beyond private tuition, there are also free learning resources online that depend on a reliable internet connection and having your own laptop. It isn’t fair for schools to take all the credit – or all the blame – for their student’s educational outcomes. Because much of the learning is happening elsewhere, through ‘hybrid learning’.
Even before COVID, studies show that students were increasingly preferring a blended or hybrid model of learning, where topics are introduced in the classroom, and mastered at home.
This is because everybody has a different learning style. No matter how hard a school tries, it cannot hope to accommodate everyone. The only person who can do that is the student themselves. We should be encouraging that, and embracing hybrid learning.
Many of the students I have spoken to say that they have missed their friends over lockdown, and wish to return to school for that one crucial reason. However, they also say that learning from home, and the space that affords, as well as increased parental involvement, is something they want to maintain after the pandemic.
We need to imagine a model whereby students are taught their core subjects of maths, English and science, but done so in a way that encourages students to learn how they learn best – and for their parents to be a key part of this process.
Having worked as a teacher around the world, I can say that British parents are some of the least involved in their children’s learning. Perhaps this comes from having a relatively good comprehensive schools system, in the same way that perhaps we would take more responsibility for our health if we didn’t have the NHS to rely on.
It’s time to accept that a school – however ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is – is just one part of the puzzle. Often, the most important parts of that puzzle are at home.
We need to invest in parents as much as we invest in teachers. If as a society we can provide postnatal classes on how to support a baby, we can also provide childhood and adolescent classes in how to guide a child’s learning throughout their education.
Only by doing that, and by investing in what really makes the difference, can we give all our children a fair start in life.
Leon Hady is a former headteacher and founder of Guide Education.