The COVID Home Education Gap
The education gap doesn’t just stop at the school gates. Home educators are feeling the impact of inequality too.
With no government support for home educated kids, this education gap isn’t going to close up any time soon.
More than 600,000 have lost their jobs (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-53060529), 8.9 million have been furloughed (which doesn’t include the self-employed) (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52977098), 4.7 million work in the gig economy (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jun/28/gig-economy-in-britain-doubles-accounting-for-47-million-workers) and so are not getting the shifts they usually would, and four million households are borrowing money just to survive. To top it all off, food prices rose and special food deals almost came to a stand still in May (https://foodfoundation.org.uk/the-big-picture/).
“Three million go hungry in UK because of lockdown,” (https://www.ft.com/content/e5061be6-2978-4c0b-aa68-f372a2526826), and although it is far from all of those that are snuggling-up-close-to-the-bread-line, free school meals are filling the gap for some of the most struggling families (thank you, Mr Rashford). But for those who home educate, none of the free school meal vouchers will be coming your way. If you are a home educator who was struggling before lockdown, the chances are that you are really struggling now.
As if lockdown isn’t hard enough for those with children (particularly if you have no access to outdoor space), the added distraction of money problems and the stress that puts on relationships is going to be holding back the home educated child’s education every bit as much as the schooled child (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/coronavirus-attainment-gap-could-widen-by-75-dfe-official-warns/ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-52701850). But when you’re not counted, in moments of crises, you get forgotten.
Think back to the Great Fire of London, rampaging through central London for four days, destroying a third of the city, leaving 100,000 people homeless. And how many people died? Six. Why? One reason is that if there wasn’t a body (and incineration has a nasty habit of leaving little remaining) it wouldn’t get recorded. And that is a major problem for understanding the needs and vulnerabilities of our own community; when you’re not seen, you’re not counted.
In the school system, a third of children are not “engaging with set work” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53049127), we also know the education gap is widening, but very few think about how that applies to our community.
The home education gap has always been there, but it rarely gets acknowledged. To sit there and say another child is not receiving as good an education as your child can only ever come over as judgemental, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Yes, there is an element of subjectivity, particularly when you are looking at the merits of individual educational philosophies, but ultimately, the more money you have, the better an education you can offer your child.
Money buys you the opportunity to try as many activities and subjects as you like with trained professionals on hand to help, it allows you to join the elite activities that only those with money can afford to do, it enables you to travel and try out as many modes and methods of HE as you like until you find the perfect fit, it allows you to think big in your projects – why build a match stick boat when you can renovate a barge? – it allows you to join all the HE groups on offer and not just one or two, enabling you to connect with other highly educated HEors that can support your child through their learning, it allows you to go to the theatre, cinema, exhibitions and every other cultural activity open to those with the means, which gives you the cultural capital with which to make the best applications to the best universities, it allows for you to take as many exams as time allows, and so much more. Money, let’s face it, opens doors.
Of those who can afford to home educate (if you’re completely reliant on free school meals, it is unlikely you will ever have the option to home educate, however beneficial it would be for your child), for the majority of us, (be they surviving on disability benefits, working multiple part-time jobs to fit round the children, just about managing on one income, or with an eye on comfortable) you accept that as part of the course there are going to be some compromises made along the way, and we make peace with this by re-packaging it…
Can’t afford a computer, that’s choosing a technology free life style. Can’t afford a house, that’s leaving your options open. Can’t afford a holiday, that’s not liking being out and about when all the schooled children are ‘free’. Children in trousers that stop three inches below the knee and have more holes than Edam, that’s not buying into consumerism. Lack of money forces you to live in a van, we call that ‘worldschooling’. Can’t afford textbooks, tutors, stationary or a curriculum… autonomous learning. Needing children to pull more than the usual weight for a child of their age, because the parents are working every hour God sends… activity-based or skills-based learning. Not buying a new pair of trainers… saving the planet.
Whatever it is, you name it, we’ll have a euphemism for it. But these terms are not always used as euphemisms, and that’s what makes them so brilliant. Some non-consumers are that way because they want to save the world, others want to save the world because they might as well given that they can’t afford to destroy it. Everyone is a winner! We all get to hold our heads high and feel equal in the eyes of our fellow home educator. But this does mean that we are left with that little unsaid problem, there is a gulf between those who have choices and those that don’t, and this has a lasting impact on all our children’s educations.
Right now, home educated families that are reliant on libraries for all their books and their internet access, are missing out on every single wonderful National Theatre play that we of the more financially comfortable middle-class have been ramming down our children’s throats for the last three months. They have missed out on all the BBC bitesize lessons that have bridged the gap for millions of children all over the UK. They can’t even start new projects or work their way through the ‘learning to read’ book schemes as they just don’t have access to the resources to do it.
Most of us have managed to switch our regular groups to Zoom, or other platforms, and education has carried on, but without the internet, not only is the education gone, the access to socialise goes with it, leaving isolation a very real problem for both parents and children.
While we fill the time with extra workbooks, activities and hobbies, all making sure that Jeff Bezos is financially safe after that costly divorce (gosh, that was a worry), many of our home educating colleagues are just trying to do as best as they can with whatever happens to be lying around the house – and let’s face it, when you’re skipping meals so your child can eat, you’re probably not going to be feeling at your most creative in the problem solving department.
Many of us are taking this opportunity to try out new curriculums and online tutors, after all, little Freddie always wanted to learn Greek, while our contemporaries can’t even keep up with their maths, because since Papa lost his job, there was no way they were going to be buying the next workbook any time soon.
Whatever education gap we had in home education before lockdown (and that’s a whole article in itself), COVID will have amplified it ten fold.
Do you remember Gavin Williamson, education secretary, saying “no child [will be] unfairly penalised” by missing exams because of school closures? All home educators knew that that wasn’t true, but did we think about who in our community was going to be penalised the most? Many more affluent home educators have tutors or use online schools, they could verify the level of work, that ‘going it alone’ home educators just couldn’t do. Those with even a little bit of money could at least shop around and try and find an exam centre that might be able to help them through, if their local one said ‘no’. That’s just not an option for some people. Their children are going to have to wait another year before they can get their exams and are able to move on to the next stage, which in and of itself could well be another financial burden that some parents aren’t going to be able to bear.
So what’s the solution? To be honest, I’m not sure. We’re looking into the face of a recession that could “kill 12,000 a year for as long as it last”, according to the Office for National Statistics (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-recession-could-kill-12-000-a-year-for-as-long-as-it-lasts-mh735qsdr). Ultimately, without more government help and support, financially scuppered home educators are not only going to suffer in the short-term, their children are also going to see a steep decline in the level of their education too, which can have life changing implications.
Those schooled children who have fallen behind may get extra help over the summer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-53100881), but there is no one coming to help the home educated kids that have fallen behind – there is a big difference between autonomous learning and not learning at all, so even self-directed learners can have their education stunted when resources, opportunities and parent facilitation is taken away from them. Perhaps if we were all registered with the Local Education Authority, the government would not be able to ignore those of us who are struggling, but that is a long and complicated debate that has been running through the home educated community for decades, and as many HEors will point out, help from the government on the education front generally comes at a price – monitoring, targets, enforced curriculums… it’s not going to be a debate the home ed community will be able to resolve for quite some time to come. But in the mean time, we can’t just leave our fellow home educators floundering on their own. So what can we as a community do to help ourselves?
Individually, most of us help our friends out as much as we can, but for a number of valid reasons (shared educational philosophies, similar available income for activities), and not so valid reasons (easier to get on with people from a similar background) we very easily cliqué with other families of a similar socio-economic background, meaning those with the most means tend to have not much more than a passing acquaintance with those of the most strained financial circumstances. In times like these, we need to rethink that if we want to keep HE a culturally and financially diverse community.
Right now we can help those that have internet access by reaching out through chatting and offer support on the internet HE groups, as that might be all the socialisation a struggling HE parent is getting; share links, on-line resources and old session plans on the HE facebook groups, email groups and websites like this one; if you are running zoom groups, consider opening them up to the wider HE community; and if you have just had a big lockdown sort out, offer your old HE resources to the HE community through your local online HE groups – even if you have to charge, it is still cheaper than parents having to buy things brand new.
When groups are back up and running, consider allow people to join the co-ops who are unable to contribute themselves; if you have a degree in a subject, consider setting up an, if not free, at cost co-op so other children can benefit from your expertise; organise park groups and the like (i.e. free) for older aged children; if free groups are running, try and go along, so that those that can’t afford to go to the paying groups still get a chance to socialise with a wide variety of people and ages.
These aren’t solutions that are going to change the world, and in and of themselves they’re not going to put food on someone else’s table, but even if they only remind us that even if we aren’t seeing each other, we are still a caring community, then it’s got to be worth it, right?