In some international education systems, the role of teachers and school leaders is seen as largely concerned with what takes place during the hours of the school day and contained within the physical boundary of the school. Indeed, in most societies there are individuals who share this view. They tend to argue that teachers should focus on delivering first class lessons in their subject, imparting the key knowledge of the formal curriculum. Whilst most would approve of the setting of ‘homework’ tasks, especially for older students, they see it as the role of parents, assisted by a range of external agencies, to take responsibility for children’s wellbeing and wider ‘education’ outside of school hours. However, I suspect that there are fewer proponents of this view now than at the start of 2020, when COVID-19 struck.
In September 1989, as an NQT about to start my first teaching post, I was sent a list of the children in my tutor group: 24 Year 7s. I was furnished with their first and last names and details of any who had a specific special educational need or medical condition. That was it. Over the next three years I gradually gleaned snippets of information about them and, once a year, met with the parents of some for a five-minute appointment if I happened to teach them history. I can remember clearly my awkwardness when distributing letters or messages to be passed on to parents, conscious that for some of my tutees I did not know whether they lived with both their biological parents, or one parent only, in an extended family or with a carer. I would say ‘Take this home to give to your mum or dad’, hoping that this instruction applied to them. I knew nothing about where my tutees lived or how conducive their home environments were to independent learning. The role of the tutor did not extend to a responsibility to facilitate out-of-school learning.
Having felt inadequately equipped as a facilitator of out-of-school learning when I had been a tutor, I was determined that, as a leader, I would enable my staff to carry out this role more effectively.
Fast forward to September 2012 when I assembled the founding staff of my new school for the first day of three weeks of training and induction. Much of this time was devoted to getting to know the first cohort of students, in order to support them as well as possible as learners, in and out of school. All of the Year 7s about to start at the school had been visited at their homes by members of staff. From these visits, colleagues had collected key information: with whom the students lived, whether they had older siblings who could support with independent learning, whether they had a quiet space to study and whether they had access to a computer, printer and WIFI. They had recorded the children’s hopes, aspirations and anxieties, their favourite subjects and those that they found harder, their interests and hobbies. They had noted their reading habits (or lack of), whether they had a full and active life outside of school, whether the adults in their life seemed to be time-rich or lacking the capacity to devote attention to their child’s wider education. All of this was passed on to the tutors, along with attendance and attainment information from the primary schools. These tutors were equipped with a wealth of rich data on which to build strong and impactful relationships with their tutees, not to mention their parents who, by virtue of the home visits programme, were already convinced of the school’s commitment to working with them.
The practice of conducting home visits prior to children joining primary school is relatively common in the UK, but home visits at the primary to secondary transition point is less so. Whilst a considerable up-front time commitment (at our school we allowed 30 minutes per visit, plus travel time), this is a wise investment in terms of the benefits gained. In overseeing nearly 2,000 visits, I only came across two families who were reluctant for school staff to visit their home (and in these cases the ‘home’ visit took place in school). Staff conducting visits were trained in the process and shadowed more experienced colleagues before leading a visit themselves. Risk assessments were put in place and background checks on the families carried out with the nursery or primary school that the child was transferring from.
When society went into lockdown in March, statistics quickly emerged of the number of families without the resources to access the (often impressive) digital learning provided by their child’s school. The Children’s Commissioner’s report of 21 April 2020 asserted that, even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were over 125,000 children living in temporary accommodation in England. An estimated 60,000 children in the UK, the report continued, lacked any internet connectivity at home, while 700,000 were in homes without any laptop, desktop or tablet. Many more children are living in homes where a device is shared, perhaps between parents who are trying to work from home or several siblings who need to do their homework, as well as connect with friends online.
In some schools, we witnessed leaders trying to determine who lacked a computer, which families did not have a printer on which to run off worksheets and which homes were without internet connectivity. Unwilling to wait for the UK government’s promised laptops, leaders loaned equipment and supplied internet dongles, but inevitably there was a time delay, during which learners from poorer families did not enjoy the same access to learning as their peers.
However, in other schools teachers seemed less aware of the potential lack of learning resources in homes. Online lessons were requiring children to use scissors, coloured pencils, glue, card, string and beads – such equipment may not be readily accessible in many homes. When, on 4 April, TeacherTapp posed the question ‘What strategies is your school using to support the disadvantaged to learn at home?’ 22 per cent of 7,466 respondents answered ‘none’ and 11 per cent responded ‘not relevant’. These responses suggest that more time could be invested in getting to know home learning environments, to build strong relationships with families and to support the disadvantaged.
In a world where pandemics are likely to strike with increasing frequency, it is more important than ever that school staff understand the home learning environment of each of their learners and have interventions in place to support those who will struggle to learn independently at home. Indeed, schools should be putting in place practical steps well in advance of any necessity to home educate. Leaders should be encouraged to use funding allocated for disadvantaged learners to purchase resources for the home – desks, stationery, lamps, laptops and WIFI devices.
Of course, facilitating impactful out-of-school learning requires an honest and open relationship with parents and carers, built on mutual respect. And this in turn requires a genuine and institution-wide investment in building relationships with parents who may be unlikely immediately to enjoy the level of trust required to discuss their challenges and the support they would benefit from. Too often, well-intentioned approaches made by teachers can feel judgemental and condescending. If efforts are made to work on an equal footing with parents and carers as co-educators, an approach offering support is less likely to be interpreted as a reproach judging parenting skills or capacity. If each family is not understood individually, it is easy for groups of parents to be treated stereotypically: assumptions can be made that all families eligible for Additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to... funding will lack learning resources, or that parents who have not been to school in the UK will struggle to assist with home learning assignments, for example. If communication does not flow naturally and habitually between home and school, with efforts made to share good news and celebrate successes as well as to communicate concerns and resolve issues, the home-school relationship will be strained and less effective. And if parents do not get a quick and efficient response to their enquiries and time and attention from staff who allow them to talk and demonstrate that they have been listened to when they have worries, the communication will be viewed by parents as one way, utilitarian and lacking integrity. The EEF’s (2019) recommendations on working with parents to support their child’s learning stress this last point: ‘Communication should be two-way: consulting with parents about how they can be involved is likely to be valuable and increase the effectiveness of home-school relationships. Currently around half of parents say that they have not been consulted.’
To build and sustain the quality of home-school relationships required for teachers to have impact as facilitators of out-of-school learning requires a significant investment of time and resource. It involves training all administrative staff in customer service skills – I took mine to a top fee-paying independent school to see how it was done there. It involves setting very clear expectations of all staff regarding language and tone, response times to parent queries and availability for out-of-hours meetings. It involves modelling the style and tone of emails and letters, role playing and practising phone conversations and meetings to build staff confidence and assure positive outcomes. It requires a degree of quality assurance to celebrate great practice and to pick up inconsistencies, a quiet word here and there, retraining and coaching where necessary. Very importantly, it requires leaders to prioritise the formation of strong parent-teacher relationships and to protect time in the working week for all their staff, teaching and operational, to work on further forging these relationships.
If I were a school leader today, I would be taking two key steps. Firstly I would build ‘facilitator of out-of-school learning’ into the job descriptions of all of my staff, discussing with them just why it was so important and encouraging them to reflect on the part they could play in supporting effective home learning. Secondly, I would take a long, hard look at everything I required my staff to do in the working week, in order to free up time for them to invest in gaining a greater understanding of all their learners and their home learning environment and build stronger relationships with the families they serve. I would encourage my staff to consider the learning habits and behaviours of their tutees, with a view to pairing up those who lacked strong learning role models at home (older siblings or parents) with learning buddies from their peer group. Whenever I have visited independent schools in the UK and abroad, I have reflected that one of the less obvious advantages that their students enjoy is the structured evening ‘prep’ time, studying in groups with peers and a member of staff on hand to support and stimulate learning. This is something that state schools should aim to emulate.
Some readers may worry that these actions would detract from the core function of teaching great lessons. My view is that this time would be well invested, resulting in stronger educational outcomes and learners more able to self-regulate and learn independently from school. I suspect that an enduring lesson from the COVID-19 crisis will be the danger of an over-reliance on school.
- Is our education system focused enough on the role of teachers and school leaders as facilitators of out-of-school learning?
- How do we provide a first rate education when more learning is likely to take place in homes and some learners will potentially be shielding for significant periods of their school life?
- How do we build stronger relationships with parents and carers as co-educators?