Parental engagement in the learning of children and young people has always been important (Desforges and Abouchaar 2003; Goodall and Vorhaus 2011). By ‘parent’, I mean any adult with a caring responsibility for the child. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a realisation of this in ways we could never have foreseen. During the pandemic, learning for almost all young people has been abruptly moved entirely into the home. Though, it is, of course, a misnomer to say that schools have been ‘closed’ – many have been physically open throughout the lockdown, and almost all have been continuing to function and provide support for learning; now more than ever, we can show that schools are about communities, rather than about buildings.
This change to learning has, for most young people and families, fallen somewhere on a continuum ranging from confusion (at best) to trauma; a situation that was not helped by the speed at which the changes have had to take place, and the lack of clarity around them which many have experienced.
In terms of supporting learning, it seems to me that the first point to be made is simply this: these are not, as I have said before (Goodall, 2020), normal times. We should not expect things to carry on as normal, or underestimate the short- and long-term changes the Covid-19 crisis will have on learning, education and schooling.
The distinction between these three terms – learning, education and schooling (Goodall, 2017) – is important. Learning starts at birth and continues for a lifetime; education is learning that includes or is bounded by formal rules, so includes sports and dance classes, learning to play an instrument, or taking part in Scouting, for example. For most young people, schooling, understood as something that happens in a particular building, has not been happening for many weeks, and may only now be slowly starting again.
But that doesn’t mean that education and learning have stopped: they’ve merely changed shape and location. The involvement and importance of families and communities in young people’s learning has never been more clear, as parents (and others) support children with work set by schools and with other forms of learning.
Parents are, understandably, concerned about how to support learning in the home – again, the swiftness of the hand over, although imperative to keep people as safe as possible, meant that many things school staff might have liked to have done to prepare and support learning at home were not possible.
There are a few messages that the research shows are important for parents to know in supporting the home learning environment (Sylva et al., 2008), and perhaps the most important is that what really matters is that they support the process of learning, rather than the content. By that, I mean fostering young people’s imagination and desire to learn, and showing them that learning is an important part of their parents’ lives, as well as their own.
Many parents, particularly of older students, may be concerned that they can’t ‘help with homework’ either because they don’t know how things are taught now, or their children are studying things they themselves have not learned. Again, a message of reassurance would be useful here: let parents know that saying, ‘I don’t know – how do you think we can find out?’ when asked a question isn’t letting their children down; in fact, it’s the opposite and supports the quest for knowledge.
And, just as you know how important it is to support your students, and to support their self-confidence, do the same with parents – let them know that you appreciate all they are doing to support their children’s learning, and want to work with them to continue to do so.
In continuing to support learning at home, it’s vital that school staff understand what has been happening at home for their students. Find out from your families what they have been doing to support learning at home. It’s important to do this from an asset-based approach – that is, ask what they have been doing and celebrate that, rather than starting off from an assumption (or statement) that children are going to be behind (behind whom? No one’s been experiencing a ‘normal’ school year) or that they need to catch up (the same applies). Many things families will have been doing won’t fit into your scheme of work, but teachers tend to be creative people – how can you build on their ‘lockdown learning’?
The best way to do this, of course, is to work alongside parents; now, more than ever, school staff and families need to work together to support learning. The basis of that partnership is the simple fact that you both – school staff and families – want what is best for the child or young person.
And in such disrupted times, that probably means starting from wellbeing concerns, rather than from issues around the curriculum. You might ask the following of parents:
- What concerns do their children have about continued learning at home and/or the return to school?
- What concerns do they as parents have about the same things?
- How can you work together to meet those concerns?
It’s important to note that in the last bullet point, I’m not saying, ‘What can you as school staff do to meet those concerns’ but rather, ‘What can you together with parents/families do to meet those concerns?’
Many places are now beginning a phased return to school for students, or for some year groups of students. As we move through the pandemic and out of the other side, we need to think clearly about what has changed, and what is still changing. Children and young people – along with everyone else – have faced disruption to their lives and will need support in continuing to learn at home and/or returning to their classrooms.
To assume that we can simply walk back into classrooms and ‘carry on as before’ is to ignore their experiences, and to devalue them (as well as ignoring and devaluing the experiences of staff). The classrooms are likely to look very different, with many things removed and social distancing in place, and the children and staff in those classrooms will not be quite the same people as they were before the pandemic struck.
In supporting a return to school buildings, it will be important to remember and act on many ideas, including:
- Children will need support, especially younger ones who might be suffering significant anxiety about separation from their parents, after being at home for so long
- School rules will not only be unfamiliar after time away, but new rules will be in place – allow children and young people space and time to come to grips with the new rules, including social distancing
- The same is true of staff. Staff who have been home with their own children for weeks on end will also be missing their children and concerned about how they are settling into new situations
- Parents will need reassurance about how the return to school is working for their children
- Staff will themselves be concerned about the new rules and more importantly, the reason the new rules are in place.
Going forward, we are quite literally moving into unknown territory around learning, education and schooling; it is probably not too much of an overstatement to say nothing will ever be quite the same again.
But, from my point of view, that’s not entirely a bad thing.
There are some things I hope have come out of the changes to learning over the last few months, that I hope continue into the future. Many parents have become involved in their children’s learning in a way they never have been before. We would miss a huge opportunity to support all of our children if we didn’t do all we could to continue that engagement when children do eventually return to school.
Key questions for you and colleagues
- How has supporting learning changed in your house/family during the lockdown?
- Have any of those changes been good – things you want to keep?
- How can schools support families to keep the good things that have happened during the lockdown, such as increased parental knowledge of what children and young people are learning?
Desforges C and Abouchaar A (2003) The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. London: Department of Education and Skills.
Goodall J (2017) Narrowing The Achievement Gap: Parental Engagement With Children’s Learning Abingdon: Routledge.
Goodall J (2020) Engaging parents during school closures. Impact 9: 67–69.
Goodall J and Vorhaus J (2011) Review of best practice in parental engagement. London: The ministerial department responsible for children’s services and education in England.
Sylva KEC, Melhuish P, Sammons B, et al. (2008) Final report from the primary phase: Pre-school, school and family influences on children’s development during Key Stage 2 (Age 7-11). Nottingham, UK: Department for Children, Schools and Families.