220 parents of children who were learning at home for all or part of the week during the lockdown period of spring 2020 provided detailed data, via online survey, on access to physical resources, learning routines, and the availability of parental, or other family/carer, supervision at home.
In this blog, we summarise what the survey tells us about how parents experienced that period, and their feelings about home schooling. We acknowledge here that these findings relate only to the responses of those who completed the survey; the findings may not be representative of the experiences of the families who did not respond to our survey.
In these families – who cared for around half the children in the project – most children were supervised for at least part of every day, in learning activities across the curriculum. An adult was available to supervise in 78% of families, but 21% reported only part-time availability. A mix of family members took on the supervision role: 95% of respondents reported it being the mother, 44% the father, 14% older siblings, and 5% grandparents. Many families referred to ‘we’ in the open comments, indicating shared responsibility.
The importance of adult supervision of learning in such young children is summed up by one parent:
There is realistically very little home learning a five-year-old can do independently.
Whilst parents were appreciative of schools’ and teachers’ efforts, their open-ended comments frequently alluded to the period as “very tough”, “frustrating”, “stressful”, “a struggle”. The word “balancing” is used frequently, as are “trying”, “struggling”, and “managing”, which paints a picture of parental endeavours.
Parents working from home could not home-school as well as they might have liked:
My child is one of 6 siblings, 5 of who were in full time education and a baby less than 1 year old. As I was the only parent doing home learning with the children, I did struggle in terms of a routine, etc
Only rarely did parents mention being furloughed during that spring period. One parent mentions feeling lucky, because this enabled them to attend to the children. Other parents explicitly express their guilt at not being able to do more for their children, and a concern that their children will not make progress:
I am a single mum & was also working from home. I did very little homeschooling. I was worried that my child would fall behind.
Many parents were simultaneously working or caring for other children. Not surprisingly, given the life stage of the families concerned, there were many households with babies or very young children, who clearly need a great deal of attention:
Not as much as we would have liked to have done as I had a baby in April. So very hard home learning as well as care for a newborn.
Children and parents all at home together meant that the family dynamics, context, relationships and practicalities had a direct influence on the experiences of each family. Sometimes the experience was a positive one for the family unit:
We spent much more time than usual outside and going for walks together as a family, as we felt fresh air, exercise, and family time must be our priority
We loved home learning. I was working full time for much of the time and alone with a baby and an eight year old but we still really embraced it successfully... It was a magical time in many ways and a real boost to his early years education
In other cases, the whole family being at home together was often a difficulty:
Very tough in some ways, with the whole household at home, and younger children to care for
Children were often allowed to play together, or do the same activity, rather than families battling to keep them separate and maintain individual activities:
Eleanor's learning was very limited as I let her play with her younger sister which they enjoyed and it freed me up to assist the older 2.
Going with the flow
Many comments, some of them fairly lengthy, indicate that the lockdown period was challenging, changeable and responsive to the moment, often following the children and their interests:
we felt that we should take our cues from Georgia with regards to how much time was spent on school and not force it. We spent much more time than usual outside and going for walks together as a family, as we felt fresh air, exercise, and family time must be our priority
Parents write about the change of circumstances, little or no routine, the necessary informality of arrangements, taking each day as it came, fitting in with things, the unpredictability associated with having parents, children, toddlers and babies - even pets - at home distracting one another. The great British weather was generally kind to us in lockdown, meaning that many parents and families were grateful for the opportunities to get outside.
It is clear from our data that many parents prioritised their children’s wellbeing and happiness over ‘school work’.
We found our days were happier and less stressful if we could pick how we learned and what we learned. My priority was to keep a happy home during the difficult time, not to [school] make sure all the learning activities set were completed.
Learning through play was often the order of the day, with games, walks, playing in the garden, baking and craft activities being very popular, reflecting the young age of the children:
We totally embraced the opportunity for the children to have lots of open-ended play opportunities and outdoor play and understood the value of this.
Learning cannot take place if the broader environment is not conducive to learning, and this parent sums it up:
My focus throughout lockdown was keeping the children happy.
In the next blog, we discuss how families managed the activities and tasks sent home from school.