'The political catch-up': Learning from parents' experiences of home-schooling children with SEND

The requirement for home-schooling at different periods during the Covid-19 pandemic was accompanied by an intensity of political narratives centred on narratives of 'loss'. Drawing on findings from a larger research project, this article explores the home-schooling experiences of parents who have children with SEND, and with it challenges the unhelpful 'political catch-up' rhetoric. 

Co-written with Dr. Shannon Ludgate and Clair Mears.

Dr. Carolyn Blackburn
Reader in Interdisciplinary Practice and Research with Families

Illustration of mother with child at a laptop

During the pandemic, parents across the UK were asked by the Government to home-school their child/ren and a plethora of resources have been produced and made available to assist with this. Under normal circumstances, many parents (especially parents of children with SEND) choose to home-school their child and home-schooling encompasses a broad spectrum of educational philosophies, methods, curricula, styles and approaches. It includes everything from ‘unschooling’– a philosophy of repositioning life, family relationships and learning to respond to children’s interests and needs without curriculum – right through to structured formal home-tutoring and every approach in between. The perceived detrimental effects of being absent from school has been a driver for the Government in ensuring that schools remain open for as long as possible and the pandemic situation is replete with narratives of ‘loss’. Little attention has been paid to any potential benefits for children and families of home-schooling or the opportunities it provides.

The Government is keen for children to ‘catch up’ with lost learning during school closures and to this end, the Prime Minister has appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner to oversee the Government's catch-up programme for children whose learning has been disrupted by Covid-19. Educational psychologists are urging the Government to reconsider its focus on the idea that children and young people need to "catch up" on their education following school closures due to the pandemic (The Telegraph, 22.02.21)

This article challenges the Government’s catch-up narrative drawing on findings from an online survey that aimed to explore parents’ experiences of home schooling their child/ren with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic. 70 parents responded to the survey and data were analysed thematically. The Faculty of HELS Academic Ethics Committee (FAEC) provided ethical approval.

The findings revealed that despite acknowledged challenges of home schooling (for example insufficient access to specialist resources, children missing their friends and the demands of balancing multiple family priorities), there were benefits and success stories emerged from the data. Out of 70 responses, 59 reported unexpected positives.

Family narratives of ‘going at a slower pace’ and improved relationships

Parents enjoyed the freedom of being able to focus on their child’s own interests, take things at a ‘slower pace’ as well as being able to access outdoor space. This led to children learning new skills not usually focused on in formal education environments and families learning together, leading to a more relaxed pattern of family life:

  • "We have chosen our own topics to focus on. Things they wouldn’t have learnt if they had been in school and they have really enjoyed this"
  • "We’ve learnt lots through play and being outdoors, our children are very outdoorsy and physical"
  • "I have managed to teach life skills and be able to be creative and introduce play into learning"
  • "We’ve got to know each other better without the pressures of school or health appointments getting in the way. We’ve all learnt to relax and not to be on edge waiting for the next meltdown"

Parents also noticed that children were manifestly more relaxed in their home environment leading to improved engagement with learning and subsequently educational and personal development:

  • "Our youngest is less anxious about school, has had more positive interaction at home… actually worked better as he felt safer. Also I have a better idea of what academic work my children do and are capable of"
  • "My children are becoming more confident in their learning abilities and school work"
  • "My eldest son is autistic and suffers from anxiety. He’s more relaxed and is blossoming without the pressures to go and socialise out of the house"

The ultimate result was decreased family stress, improved emotional wellbeing for children, and fewer critical incidents of emotional meltdowns. The benefits reported by parents need to be considered as the Government re-opens schools and ploughs on with its narrative of loss and catch up to the potential disadvantage of many children and their families.

Extract from a longer article submitted to the Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs (JOSEN) February 2021. 

Further reading

Exploring home schooling experiences for children with SEND and their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic - School of Education and Social Work