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Sunday, September 27, 2020
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What children really need is time with mum and dad

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HOME schooling can work beneficially for children provided their parents are prepared to become fully engaged. In tens of thousands of households it has long been the established daily routine.

For too many parents, though, the sad reality of the current lockdown is that the burden and the responsibility of home schooling is just too much. Their plaintive cries for help are permeating the media. Hannah Richardson, a BBC education and social affairs reporter, summed up a growing sense of panic: ‘When UK schools closed their doors amid the coronavirus crisis a couple of weeks ago, a second – and for some, horrifying – epidemic started to spread: that of home schooling.’

The media has been full of such parental whining. Teachers have joined the ranks of society’s heroes because of a growing appreciation of what they must have to put up with daily in their schools. Relegating the teaching profession to a child-minding service, however, is unlikely to enhance teacher morale or add to the quality of schooling.

Some parents need to wake up to the responsibilities of parenthood. It requires a great deal more than handing their offspring over to the state. In the UK the responsibility for educating a child has always rested with parents. Government guidance from England’s Department for Education re-stated this as recently as April 2019:

‘As parents, you – not the state – are responsible for ensuring that your child, if he or she is of compulsory school age, is properly educated.’

Schools have become the crutch on which most parents lean, understandably, to take the weight of responsibility for their children’s learning and for much of their upbringing. Teachers operate truly in loco parentis.

The shutdown means that time in school has been replaced by extra time with mum and dad. Many parents are finding it difficult to cope. School holidays are one thing but taking the place of teachers – operating in loco scholarum – is proving quite a challenge.

This seems to be especially the case if parents are working from home. According to a survey reported in the Sunday Times more than 60 per cent of such parents ‘are struggling to do their jobs from home and educate and look after their children at the same time’.

The easy way out, of course, is to plonk the kids in front of the telly. It keeps them quiet and means that parents do not have to work out an alternative strategy. This path of least resistance has its attractions but it is laden with dangers.

Even before the current crisis our children were saturated with screen-time exposure, much of it via smartphones. They are amongst the most digitally-dosed young people on the planet. Only the rich bosses of the software companies in Silicon Valley, California, seem cognisant of a screen-time addiction problem. They are increasingly sending their own kids to tech-free schools.

With reference to the television side of screen-time, a thoughtful piece by Henry Mance in the Financial Times sets out both the positives and the pitfalls. There are, indeed, some first-rate TV programmes for children. The BBC’s Christmas Lectures are one example and the Brian Cox programmes on astronomy are compelling and instructive for all ages. Nor should we dismiss the likes of Peppa Pig, Hey Duggee or Sesame Street for toddlers and infants. As Mance suggests, they can be a starting point for planning activities with the TV switched off.

Much more dangerous are the celeb-orientated junk programmes that also attract younger viewers. Mance points to the woeful influence of Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset programmes that started in Italy in the early 1980s. A team of academics assessed the impact of what three decades of exposure to this TV trash had on young people. Comparison was possible because only 50 per cent of the country was in the Mediaset coverage areas.

It turns out that, on average, Italians who had access to Mediaset programmes before the age of ten lag behind non-Mediaset Italians in terms of literacy and numeracy equivalent to three or four IQ points.

Next week the BBC will begin fourteen weeks of educational programmes to support home schooling. The initiative is commendable but the use of celeb presenters such as Oti Mabuse, a Strictly Come Dancing star, suggests an element of caution before over-reliance on the programmes might be wise.

My advice to parents is to record a programme first and watch it when the kids are in bed. Work out how the programme can be a starting point for study rather than a finishing point.

Many parents will claim they do not have time for such a process. They are happy to afford expensive extras for their children such as exotic holidays, out-of-school clubs, fashion accessories, over-the-top parties and so on. Time is something they claim not be able to afford. It is, though, the only thing their children really need.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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