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‘Seeing my son’s development was incredible’: the parents sticking with home schooling beyond lockdown

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/09/2020 Amy Fleming

It’s no secret that imposed home schooling during lockdown was tough on many parents. By June, one in three women and one in five men reported difficulties to the Office for National Statistics. They also said that a child in their house was struggling to continue their education at home; just under half said home schooling was negatively affecting their children’s wellbeing.

But while this autumn term has been a yearned-for return to something like normality for many parents, others have decided to deregister their children from school altogether. For these families, lockdown provided a chance to step off the treadmill and try a more fluid way of life. Home felt safer. Children and parents relaxed, became more creative, engaged better with learning.

It’s been the two of us from day one. He’s very curious, so we get up to a lot of exploring and adventures

Mari-Anne Chikerema Chiromo is a single mother who lives in London, with no family nearby. She works for the international business network EY (formerly Ernst and Young), leading a global programme to get more women into technology. Her five-year-old son, Luca, would have moved up to year 1 this term, but Chikerema Chiromo has chosen not to send him back. “It’s been the two of us from day one,” she says. “We are extremely close and he’s very curious, so we get up to a lot of exploring and adventures.”

Chikerema Chiromo had struggled with her son’s transition from nursery, which provided comforting daily updates about what he had eaten and done. If they were both shattered and needed a break, she could pull him out for a day off together, making dens and watching films. “You can’t do that with school,” she says, and with her job and domestic duties, she found that “there was just no time for us”. Not only did lockdown give them back this bonding time, she says, “but I was seeing Luca’s development for myself, which was incredible”. Before he started school, she had bought him some overly advanced books to prepare him. Finally, in lockdown, she says, “we were working through those books and it was easy”.

Safety is a key concern, too. Luca has asthma and, pre-pandemic, had overnight stays in hospital with bronchitis. Chikerema Chiromo isn’t convinced it’s safe for her son to be part of the “experiment” of schools reopening. Luca had enjoyed school, though, and she remains open to him going back eventually. Right now, she says, “I can’t take that gamble.”

Chikerema Chiromo is lucky that she can work flexibly. “I work across different time zones,” she says, “so I’m doing presentations and seminars after he’s gone to sleep.” She says she’s been “very transparent” with co-workers, saying, “these are my circumstances, so my revised timetable has to now factor in this other very important job”.

If teaching maths wasn't working, we'd go outside and do a minibeast survey

Some parents opting to home school for the long-term say they would never have considered that option before. Antoinette Frearson, a teaching assistant in Worcestershire, says that, previously, she was “all for learning in schools and making sure that everyone’s fulfilling their potential”. Her daughter, Ellen, is eight, and has always had, she says, “a bit of an issue with focus, and wasn’t at her age-related expectations for maths and English”.

But during lockdown, Frearson says, “Ellen was like a different child.” If teaching maths wasn’t working, she would say, “put your coat on and we’ll go out and do a minibeast survey. We’ll do tallies on ladybirds and lacewings and I’ll show you how to do a bar chart.”

Frearson was able to keep her daughter engaged in a way that would have been impossible in a class of 30. An end-of-year assessment carried out with the help of Ellen’s teacher showed she had reached her age-related expectations in the core subjects. “It really gave me heart,” says Frearson, “and I thought, if this is what one-to-one does for her, is it worth the sacrifice, at least for her primary years, to give up the job and go down to one income?” Frearson’s husband, Nigel, is a healthcare assistant for the NHS. “We’re not middle class, it’s not like we don’t need the money,” she says. “But we can be frugal, purely to be able to give her a better start in life.”

Frearson will be following the school curriculum, with the aim of getting Ellen up to speed in time for secondary school, although she’s feeling increasingly open to home schooling through her teens; she has joined a home-education group in the area.

Home educators are not required to follow the national curriculum, nor any other, although there are plenty available to purchase for home use, either entirely or in modules. Horizons Homeschool, for example, teaches holistically through projects rather than separate subjects. Long-term home educators can dip into different approaches to discover how their children learn best. Parents who chose these methods during lockdown, rather than attempting to enforce reams of homework sent from school, often had more positive experiences.

Janine Brown (not her real name), a primary school secretary in Wales, says her two children, aged 10 and five, thrived at home, taking a more “chilled” approach to learning. At first, says Brown, “my 10-year-old made herself a timetable that she had pinned up next to her bed, and she was ticking off lessons that she’d done. But about four weeks in, she clocked that a lot of kids weren’t doing anything.” She ended up doing two days’ formal learning a week. “My kids built a little treehouse,” says Brown. “My eldest has learned baking and cooking, and wants to learn Japanese, so we’ve signed up for an online class.”

Safety concerns have led her to quit her job, and continue with this more free-flowing approach. “Our children are quite severely asthmatic and one was hospitalised last year,” she says. This month, the family will feel the financial hit of Brown’s lost income for the first time, but they are hoping to make up the difference. “I’ve applied for a couple of weekend and evening jobs,” she says. Meanwhile, her husband is hoping to pick up extra shifts in food production.

Lockdown has given parents the experience that they were looking for. They've thought, 'You know I can actually do this'

The Department for Education doesn’t yet have firm statistics on the number of parents who have deregistered their children from school this term. But Brother Nia Imara, founder of the National Association of Black Supplementary Schools, which helps families of African heritage find extra educational resources (such as Saturday schools), says he has seen twice as many inquiries from parents about home education, and is working to set up a formal home-education support organisation. Imara says the reasons have included news reports that black people are at greater risk from Covid-19; schools refusing to address racist bullying; and children with special educational needs not getting the required help. “Lockdown has given these parents the experience that they were looking for. They’ve managed to organise it and thought, ‘You know, I can actually do this.’”

Sarah Dickinson, who has been volunteering with support group Home Education Northern Ireland for eight years, says her group is also seeing a lot of interest, but warns that “it’s hard to know how much of it will translate into the long-term. I think those who have always thought about it, or who have seen a positive change in their children, are excited by the possibilities.”

Related: The teacher who decided to 'unschool' her own children

She points out, however, that home schooling during lockdown was nothing like the average home-education experience. “Our family doesn’t usually spend much time at home,” she says. There are weekly art classes at a local gallery, trips to sporting events. In Gloucestershire there is a forest school and a farm home-schooling group. “New home educators are usually welcomed into quite an active and social community, but at the moment we’re as limited as everyone else. That will present extra challenges.”

Dickinson says that more socially distanced events are starting to appear, and, in the meantime, “new home educators can research and access peer support online”, through Facebook groups and local websites. There are benefits to a slow segue into community activities – which will usually need to be paid for. “Experienced home educators often recommend a period of peaceful settling in before signing up to things,” she says. “It is so easy to jump in with both feet and end up doing too much. There is something to be said for beginning quietly at home, exploring a new way of approaching education as a family.”

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