COVID-19 AND IT’S EFFECTS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND EDUCATION IN THE UK- part 5 of 8
5-Education Part 1
GOVERNMENT ADVICE ON REMOTE LEARNING
The government have a dedicated page on how to continue learning at home during lockdown. Not all families will find this guidance actionable. While there’s guidance for all key stages and for SEN pupils, it’s impossible for tailored guidance for your child. This is a problem when actually getting them to learn at home. General advice like having a routine, building in fun activities and independence as well as theory lessons is all very well, but what about children with emerging or pre-existing mental health concerns, those with executive functioning challenges who find it hard to learn independently, or who refuse? If the school only has limited knowledge of your child’s difficulties or they are new, there is virtually no guidance for your situation. We’ve tried to do our best, but what if our best isn’t good enough. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/supporting-your-childrens-education-during-coronavirus-covid-19 (updated 16th July 2020)
Between A Level and GCSE results days, the government made a massive U-turn on its framework for A level and GCSE results. The previous framework, which altered grades based on the average performance at their school, had been accused of discriminating against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Labour leader Keir Starmer and several MPs from all sides of the Commons called it a disgrace and a shambles. They have now reverted to using teacher predictions, which seem to be a much fairer reflection of the student’s potential. Education secretary Gavin Williamson had been worried that teacher predictions would be overestimated and therefore qualify students beyond their abilities. This doesn’t seem like a minister who believes in young people! In a time where nobody can quite tell what’s coming next, there are things that are abundantly clear. Young people’s mental health will not be helped by the stress of receiving a lowered grade and all the confusion surrounding grades. This is their futures the MPs are playing with! After saying they’ll do their best to honour the sacrifice of final year students and to secure their futures, this seems to be a slap in the face. This government could certainly ‘do better’.
40% of young people may have got top GCSE grades this year, but of more interest to me is the impact the pandemic had on their mental health. As I know from experience, failing mental health can be obscured by high academic performance.
5 COMMON STRUGGLES WITH ONLINE LEARNING- WHY IT WAS NEVER GOING TO GO WELL
Elearningindustry.com says that the following are the most common struggles with online learning.
1. Adapting to the new way of learning
2. Technical issues with the student’s equipment or with the website
3. Computer literacy (being able to do the basics in operating the computer and software)
4. Time management
Numbers 1 to 3 can be mitigated by having adequate time to prepare for the switch to online learning (reading up about how it will work, testing the equipment and getting used to the websites and software). However, students and their families were forced into online learning with barely a week’s notice. Schools did make efforts to be accommodating and to provide equipment and advice, but it wasn’t enough for many.
Numbers 4 and 5 depend on the student. As a student moves through school, it is expected that their ability to learn independently and to manage their time properly will improve so they can revise for important exams. They aren’t expected to have the ability to do this when younger, although it helps when doing homework. Able students who are already able to manage their time and motivate themselves to study would have adapted better. This doesn’t mean that they were fine, as the lessons provided may not have been challenging or engaging enough. The lower-ability students may find things more of a struggle due to needing more support from teachers. Students with learning difficulties or behavioural or emotional issues struggle too due to the lack of their usual support and extra anxiety and stress. Where students struggle, their families would have had to be more involved in the schooling. This isn’t possible for all, whether due to lack of time or knowledge, but even if it was possible it was often a poor substitute for classroom learning and many parents are worried about their child keeping up. It is hoped that essential topics (eg. in English, Maths, Science) will be repeated to fill the gaps in knowledge. If not, the gulf between the most able and less able will only have widened. This doesn’t bode well for their future prospects.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE- CARER AND TUTOR?
My own experience of having to tutor my younger brother throughout lockdown was not a positive one. He was refusing and having emotional meltdowns regularly due to the amount of work and the focus it required. I felt like a stepmother constantly being reminded that they’re not doing it the way Mummy does and I found it tough to balance the teacher role and the family one. Even worse, the updates from the school made it clear that the kids were to be commended for quietly getting on with their work at home independently (the exact opposite of my experience). Every task had to be previewed by me, simplified with most of the notes written and distilled down into the actual key questions, then I had to sit and teach him and motivate him to complete each PowerPoint or question. This was so exhausting that we only did it 2 or 3 days a week, cramming it all in. When we contacted the school for advice on focus and behaviour issues, the only advice they offered was around providing notes and a schedule which did not help. We also sought emotional support for him but they could only place him on waiting lists for counselling.
On the positive side, we as his family now have a much better understanding of what he’s struggling with in regard to learning and have been able to ask for processing tests to be done. The school seemed previously unaware of these issues but agreed when we told them what we’d noticed. Hopefully, he will be better supported, and we can have some strategies in place to make revision easier when that comes up in 2 years. We never would have had this insight without remote learning. It also meant that I kept up practice with tutoring which is my part time job.
I am aware that the fact that we weren’t working during lockdown was the only reason my brother did his work. It would have been much harder to balance both and I applaud any family that coped with such circumstances, whether it went well or not. The worry now is that, upon his return to school in September, he’ll not have retained any of that content and will then be behind. At least we can say we did the lessons and can go over them again if required, but it is a worry. Perhaps the school will build in time to revisit that content, especially in core subjects.
A POSITIVE VIEW OF ONLINE LEARNING DURING LOCKDOWN IN INDIA
Online learning has had many benefits for Indian children, allowing them to learn at their own pace and focus on academics and improve their computer literacy. Parents in India want online learning to be available more after the pandemic. In Indian society, parents and teachers are to be respected and punishments are harsher than in Britain. This could have contributed to Indian children having less trouble adjusting to having to respect their parents as teachers, and fewer difficulties for the parents in terms of discipline and focus.
This doesn’t mean I encourage the use of harsh punishments to get compliance, as some children genuinely cannot cope with the demands of schooling for one reason or another. Such children should be supported rather than punished, but I know from experience as my brother’s ‘teacher’ throughout the lockdown period that this is far from easy. Like many other UK families, mine is looking forward to children being able to return to the classroom, although it will take some getting used to.
BBC TEACH ON THE EXPERIENCES OF TEACHERS IN LOCKDOWN
BBC Teach has a wealth of resources for those in education. It had an article on teachers’ experiences of lockdown (https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/teacher-support/a-teachers-life-in-lockdown/zrw72sg) . It is easy to forget as a remote learning student or supporting family that teachers were having to work very hard to modify their lessons and that some were juggling teaching and looking after family too.
Schools are not just places of learning — This is certainly true. A school is a place that prepares students for life and for some provides the interaction, security, and structure they wouldn’t get elsewhere.
They’re also communities in their own right. Not every child is home schooling in the stable environment that Amanda’s (Amanda is a secondary school teacher with 3 children) family enjoys. As well as organising lesson plans for their classes to go through at home, teachers have to consider the welfare of the vulnerable children in their care when they are set to be off-site for some time.
Vulnerable students and families needed support so teachers still had to fulfil the pastoral side of their role. While that support didn’t benefit my family, for some it would have been the only way for the students to keep on top of their work and access materials. In such an uncertain time, students and families may have relied on school and teachers even more for that badly needed security and structure. This, as explored below, would have meant a teacher’s workload increased rather than decreased. Good Teachers really do care about the welfare of their students and will worry about them and how they are coping even in general, so this would have also increased in these times. Teachers often get lambasted by students, parents and the government, but they really should be recognised as heroes.
For Mollie (a primary teacher) this means keeping closer contact with children who need a more watchful eye, otherwise, it can be stressful. She said: “It’s the emotional strain of not knowing that the children in your care are safe or happy or learning. The ones I would ordinarily worry about, that’s magnified. I can’t make sure that, between the hours of nine and three, they’re in safe and happy environments.”
Families of children who are listed as vulnerable get regular calls to check on their welfare and members of the PTA have also been doing the rounds, delivering food parcels and supplies such as pens, pencils and paper to those who need them so that home lessons don’t suffer. Mollie admits that the pastoral side of her role has made her even more busy during the lockdown. She can still find herself emailing parents at 8.30pm, compared to a working day which used to run from 8.30am to around 5pm.
Amanda and her colleagues also have to consider what now happens to the students who were due to take their GCSEs this summer. Their teaching was complete and mock exam results may be used to decide a final grade, but there wasn’t time to sit the second round of mocks which could have helped form a more complete picture for each student. She admits to ‘having tears in her eyes’ the day the school was closed down, knowing the impact it would have on her pupils’ futures.
Another thing those who are not key workers may not have acknowledged is that some teachers and students were still in school, which would have been a very different experience.
Research by education insight company EdComs found that 69% of primary teachers and 62% of secondary teachers are still dividing their time in the lockdown between home and school. Amanda is one of the staff at her school who is on a rota to go back on to the premises to teach the children of key workers. There are no more than 10 pupils on site at a time and their timetable is split into sessions. “It’s a strange situation for them,” she said. “They’re not WhatsApping or video conferencing like their other friends. They have two hours in the morning to do their work at a computer set up by the staff, and then another hour in the afternoon and also an hour in the library where they’re having their own time.”
Keeping children safe and happy is the priority
Several articles explore the fact that students have struggled in a practical sense with their learning. What is often forgotten is the effect on their well-being. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security and wellbeing come well before learning. This is why schools aimed to provide a sense of community on social media and by still holding competitions and sports days. They were also contactable by email. My brother took advantage of this by looking at the social media posts and emailing his favourite teachers for a chat. When schools return, I know I will never take what they do for granted again.
(Mollie) added: “Some parents say to me they haven’t managed to do all of today’s home learning. I say, ‘are your kids safe and happy? Because if they are, that’s my priority.”
“The lockdown might strengthen the sense of community. My headteacher says he’s having emails from parents he’s never heard from before. They’re saying they appreciate everything he’s done.”
It’s a situation that has already sharpened Amanda’s view of life.
She said: “I’m appreciating time with my family. My mum is on her own and it’s important to have contact and keep conversations going on a regular basis. You can’t take for granted that you can just jump in a car and go and speak to someone.”