Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold early this year, countries all over the world have been grappling with whether, when and how to get children back into the classroom. Different countries experimented with different approaches: Dutch schools, for example, have returned to more or less business as usual for children under 12. Germany began a phased return as early as May, while Spain and Italy have been much more cautious and are not reopening schools until September. Here in Britain, most pupils have not been in classrooms since the end of the spring term, around about the time the pandemic took hold. Millions of parents in the UK – my wife and I included – have spent a great deal of the past four months developing our skills as home educators.
A survey from the Office for National Statistics found that 52% of parents were confident in their ability to educate their children at home. – Niall Gooch
In April, a survey from the Office for National Statistics found that 52% of parents were confident in their ability to educate their children at home. One commentator on Twitter, a government statistician, called this “hubris” (defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence). I’m not so sure. Teaching is a challenging and underrated profession. However, a lot of the factors that make it difficult are a result not of teaching itself, but of the obstacles with which teachers are confronted. That is to say, because of the fact that they are teaching up to 30 pupils at once, teachers are obliged to devote huge amounts of energy to matters such as planning, crowd control and differentiation (i.e. tailoring work to different ability levels within the same class). It seems to me possible that (at the domestic level) many parents are indeed well equipped and well able to transmit knowledge and wisdom within their own spheres of expertise – insomuch as their fields of understanding stretch.
Our approach to schooling is something we tend not to question. We take it as an immutable that all children between five and 18 need to spend 5 days a week, 40 weeks a year in large institutional settings, strictly segregated by age, following a centralised curriculum, devised by distant officials. But there is nothing inevitable about this and even if change is unlikely, given current conditions, it is worth asking how things might be done differently. This seems especially important in an age when social media has intensified the perennial childhood problems of bullying, cliques, gossip and premature exposure to adult material and ideas; when technology means that parental ignorance of young people’s culture is more acute a problem than ever before.
Of course, in our age of double-earner households, schools as all-day childcare have a vital role in the economy. – Niall Gooch
Of course, in our age of double-earner households, schools as all-day childcare have a vital role in the economy. It could be argued that an important function of schools in modern Britain is childcare and the closure of schools has starkly revealed the underlying weakness of a system where too few households have a full-time parent available.
Would it be at all feasible to return to small-scale education, centred on the home or on local communities? Obviously there are certain subjects which require specialist instruction, such as foreign languages or advanced maths and science. This doesn’t strike me as an insurmountable problem, however. We also need to think carefully about what exactly we are preparing children for; I have long thought there needs to be more diversity and variation in how we instruct and form young people. This would be entirely in line with what the Church teaches about the God-given talents and dignity of each individual. As Pope Emeritus Benedict once put it, “everyone is loved. Everyone is willed. Everyone is necessary.”
Niall Gooch is a regular contributor to Chapter House.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.