We’ve all seen the posts on social media: suddenly, millions of parents are finding themselves in charge of their children’s daily education and – something that comes as no surprise to those of us who teach or have taught for a living – a large proportion of them aren’t finding it at all easy.
Families with teens are facing their own struggles, of course; but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s households where the youngsters have not yet reached secondary school that are finding the new normal especially challenging.
In fact, Roger MacGinty, a professor at Durham University, pretty much caught the mood of the nation fairly early on, when he tweeted on March 18th, “I am 30 minutes into home schooling my 6 year old. I suggest that all teachers are paid £1m a year from now on” – a message that went instantly viral, shared by slightly hysterical parents and very-much-trying-not-to-say-we-told-you-so teachers with equal fervour.
So, what’s the problem?
After all, it’s not as though families are simply being left to get on with it entirely unsupported – schools are sending work home; commercial resources providers (including the one for which I now work after over 20 years at the chalkface) are offering free downloads and subscriptions; and everyone from celebrity fitness coaches to independent forest school practitioners is offering virtual tuition, daily storytelling, suggestions for wholesome activities that don’t need a classroom or playground, and much more.
When it comes to filling the day with educational endeavour, parents are spoilt for choice – especially as they’re in no danger of a call from Ofsted to check on their curriculum intent, implementation and impact.
But maybe that’s the issue. With so many options out there, and so much well-meaning advice, it can all very quickly become overwhelming.
Parents who are used to structuring family life with the ‘education’ part of it largely outsourced, are now having to fill a school-day-sized gap in their weekly schedule in a way that meets their children’s learning and wellbeing needs and, quite possibly, allows them to carry on with their own work simultaneously.
They’re making decisions about what should be learnt, and how, and when; the kinds of decisions, in fact, that can take SLTs with years of experience to the very limit of their professional expertise. They’re timetabling.
And timetabling, as every teacher knows, is as much an art as a science.
What is right for one class won’t automatically fit the bill for another – similarly, what works in a school with hundreds of pupils and dozens of teachers is unlikely to run smoothly in a home environment for one or two kids and an untrained adult who is trying to keep on top of work emails at the same time as supervising learning and managing the catering.
Certainly, demanding that a six-year-old and a ten-year-old sit neatly at the kitchen table and simply “follow whatever it is they would have been doing at school” is unlikely to lead to a harmonious, let alone productive, educational experience.
Whatever it looks like, though, a prominently displayed timetable that’s been carefully considered in advance and is clearly understood by everyone involved is probably the single most useful resource that I would recommend to the current army of largely reluctant home-edders.
Why? Because it represents a shared language for families in this new stage of their lives.
It’s a mechanism for introducing shape to chaos, and ensuring a healthy mix of learning, play, activity and relaxation.
It can incorporate ways for parents to continue working from home, and remind everyone to think about everyone else who’s sharing their space.
And most of all, it might help to bring an element of comforting familiarity for children in the changed and uncertain world we’re all currently navigating.
In other words… it’s a start.
10 timetabling tips for novice home educators
A timetable doesn’t need to have actual times on it. Add them, by all means, if it helps you – but simply dividing the day into ‘blocks’ of unspecified lengths, each allocated to a different activity, enables both structure and flexibility.
In most primary schools, English and maths tasks tend to be completed in the morning, with afternoons given to topic work and creative activities. Whilst it’s not obligatory, sticking roughly to this recognisable routine might help with getting children’s buy-in, as it will have a ring of official authenticity.
Whatever you do, build in reading time each day – independent and/or shared – and talk to children about their reading. Add it to your own work timetable if you need to; it should be right at the top of your priority list.
Specific learning tasks can be short. Younger children may only be able to work for 10-15 minutes independently, older children will be able to work for longer. Bear in mind, though, that some experts estimate once you take out assemblies, moving between classrooms, getting out books and equipment, tidying away, behaviour management, breaks and lunchtime – two hours of quality learning in total could easily represent the equivalent of a full school day.
Build in time for rest, lunch and free play; and plan to spend some time outdoors every day if you can. Adding these to the timetable reminds everyone of their importance.
Learning does not have to be all about formal worksheets! Cooking, helping with household chores, telling stories using their toys, planting seeds, playing board games… all these and more definitely count as learning; and being able to spend time like this can be a hugely positive aspect of educating at home.
Setting up personal projects about something your child is interested in can be really motivating. Perhaps they could have daily ‘project time’, where they research and make a book, PowerPoint or piece of artwork following their own interests – and then teach you what they’ve learnt.
Encourage children to complete something creative each day (artwork, Lego models, making a den, baking and then decorating cakes, playdough).
Involve your children when planning their day so that they know what to expect and feel some ownership of their learning.
Above all, remember to be flexible – for example, let your child continue with an activity if they are enjoying it and fully engaged; and never be afraid to change the timetable if it’s not working – you don’t even have to run your proposed alterations past the SLT!