That’s not to say that the physical places we know as schools don’t have value. After a year of sudden lockdowns and halting returns, most parents and indeed most children across the UK were eager for school buildings to re-open and the era of involuntary home-schooling to come to a close. Working parents in particular are exhausted by the burden of organising their children's learning day, ensuring coverage of necessary concepts and attendance at obligatory video classes. Kids miss the specialised attention of their teachers, the engagement of their friends, and the wonder of learning as a social experience, of the group “aha!” when a mastery of a new concept is witnessed and shared.
That's because the essence of school is relationships – that web of connections between students and teachers, students and peers, and students and themselves as learners.
Families that have succeeded in home education, before or during the pandemic, understand this instinctively. Often drawn (or driven!) to home education by specific learning needs not met in a conventional school-as-place, home-schooling parents create their own powerful teaching relationships with their children that they may then seek to supplement with tutors or online instructors. They come together with other families to ensure robust peer relationships for academics and enrichment. Perhaps most importantly, these parents get a front row view of their child as a learner, with daily opportunities to reinforce emerging skills of self-management and self-advocacy. For those in home education, constructing this web of connected relationships is hard, sometimes lonely work, eased by a vibrant community of like-minded families but not well supported by local education authorities or the government at large.
A growing number of families seeking alternatives to school-as-place instead choose purpose-built online schools like Harrow School Online and Pearson Online Academy, for exactly these reasons. These schools are designed to engage students in rich, guided self-study experiences, balanced with purposeful live instruction provided by teachers who know from the data what to emphasise and where to extend, and ongoing guidance from success coaches with an eye to post-school futures. Students at schools like these come together for classroom team projects as well as common extracurricular pursuits from robotics to film study to debate. And parents play important ongoing, supportive roles in their children’s learning as mentors and coaches.
As our education policy leaders and stakeholders consider what school will look like in the UK post-pandemic – as we ponder both a “return to normalcy” and new glimpses of the future of learning – we would do well to hold onto what this wrenching, remarkable period has taught us about the essence of school.
By Mickey Revenaugh, Vice President, Online Learning