Is education being furloughed during this endless summer?

By Alistair Kellie, Managing Partner

The announcement today that most primary school children in England won’t go back to go school before the summer holidays will be a hammer blow to many parents.  The prospect of continuing to home school and then to entertain children through until September (at the earliest), is daunting, to say the least.

The government had hoped to get all primary pupils back for four weeks of school before the summer break.  Unfortunately the challenge of social distancing means that for now, it will remain just nurseries, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils, as well as children of key workers in England back in the classroom*.

As the parents of three boys (Years 3, 5 and one at secondary school, Year 8), our home school adventure continues.  First the positives.  We (like many readers of the Newgate Newsletter) are very fortunate to have some space and the necessary technology to allow two adults and three children to work on various devices simultaneously, broadband allowing.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for children without access to remote learning, books and the space to be creative. 

The weather has also helped significantly, but again, only for those fortunate enough to have gardens and the space in which to run around.  The good weather also means that it has already felt like the endless summer term (which started pre-Easter)…but goodness knows how we’ll feel by September.  Already one day morphs easily into the next. 

My colleague Laura Leggeter says: “Whilst we know it’s disadvantaged children who will pay the greatest price by missing school during this period, the news that plans have been scrapped for primary school returners this month is a blow for us all. The reopening of schools in 22 European countries has not led to any significant increase in coronavirus infections among children, parents or staff, yet we seem to be stalling.

“Beyond the frustrations of kitchen table maths, for us as a family the loss of social interaction and sport is where we are feeling it the most – our active nine year old has gone from twice daily sport and frequent fixtures to family walks and garden kickarounds – a measly replacement for the teamwork and camaraderie that these kids get beyond the classroom both fitness and friendship wise.”

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I’ve been able to focus on work whilst my wife has become a de facto teacher.  I’m in awe of her ability to switch seamlessly between head teacher, mother and consultant. Her work marketing for a high end travel company has dropped off a cliff…for now, but hopefully that will change soon, which will of course bring new challenges.

Our school day starts at 8.30am with online registration for the 13 year old, whilst the other two get started on a Maths or English exercise.  As much as we love our primary school, they haven’t provided much support throughout lock-down.  However, what has really helped has been BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy, which offer online learning provided by experienced teachers. The latter has been such a success that they now look forward to lessons with ‘Mr Mac’ and ‘Mrs Barr’, both of whom we now feel like we know personally.  

They break at 10.45am, before restarting at 11am for a daily Zoom lesson by my in-laws (thank-you both!) focused on History, the Natural World and General Knowledge, followed by one more ‘class’ pre-lunch. The afternoons for the younger two are usually a mixture of reading, podcasts, craft, outdoor activities and freestyle playing (which is always encouraged).  As I speak, they are watching a 15 minute CBBC programme by Martin Bashir which reveals why Martin Luther King Jnr is his hero from history…part of their Celebrity Supply Teacher series.  And then like a teaching pro, preparation starts for the following day.

But not everyone was disappointed by today’s announcement.  For many this means that they don’t need to make a difficult decision as to whether to socialise their children.  For others it is also an opportunity to continue to enjoy more time together and to have a respite from the daily merry-go-round of life.

Another colleague, Adam Browning, who is married to a Special Needs Teacher said: “I know many friends and colleagues are desperate for their kids to return to the social, active and learning environment of school. Unfortunately, I fear the reality awaiting our children doesn’t include any of these things. There will be no books, toys or sports. Half of their friends will not be present and they will not be returning to the curriculum. Classrooms will be unfamiliar, empty rooms stripped of almost all the recognisable characteristics and comforts they left behind in March. They will have their temperature taken by an unfamiliar face in a mask and plastic visor every morning – some schools are even drawing boxes in the playground to ensure children stay 2m apart whilst playing – good luck with that! 

“In short, it will be weird and uncomfortable and probably cause long term anxiety for many. On this basis, I favour the delayed return of primary schools and in turn will embrace the gift of more time with my children, teaching them, drawing with them, singing, gardening, cooking and eating together – it’s a golden opportunity for us to bond with our kids and I for one intend to relish every second.”

The majority of the class of 2020 have effectively been furloughed until further notice, but at least they won’t be afraid of video conferencing when they enter the workplace.  So, bring on the Christmas term…hopefully…and in the meantime enjoy this lovely family time!

*Schools in Wales will reopen from 29 June to all age groups for limited periods during the week, while Scottish schools are to reopen at the start of the autumn term on 11 August, with some continued home-learning. Some Northern Irish pupils preparing for exams and those about to move to post-primary schools will go back in late August, with a phased return for the rest in September.