For most children, missing formal schooling for a period is not going to hurt

For most children, missing formal schooling for a period is not going to hurt

How do I know? Because in 2003, my own three children were out of formal schooling. What I did learn was that it's ok to stop worrying.

As the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues, people everywhere are stressed and upset. And while some children are still at school, many parents (in Australia and other places) are now essentially home-schooling children either voluntarily or compulsorily, as they isolate themselves with their kids.

For these parents, it’s going to be a huge challenge to keep children occupied and happy in the months to come, especially with venues closed and contact with other people limited. The scale of this is gobsmacking, and alarming. And there’s no rule book to follow or advice that fits all, or even many, situations.

On one front, at least, I hope to here offer parents a semblance of comfort during such worrying times. And this is that, for most children, not being in formal schooling for a while is not going to hurt them. Even more importantly, struggling to get children to complete worksheets and other academic activities at home is HARD (sometimes impossible) particularly for parents still trying to work from home and for kids missing their friends.

How do I know? Because in 2003, my own three children were out of formal schooling for 10 months while we took a caravan trip around Australia. They were aged 13 and 9 at the time (the 9-year-olds were twins), and at the start of that trip I, too, expected them to complete regular written schoolwork as we travelled. I even expected it to be fairly easy to do so, as I’m a qualified primary school teacher.

Reader: it was impossible. Not only is working with your own children many times more difficult than doing it professionally, but homes (and caravans) aren’t set up to be conducive to getting work done. Schools have routines and procedures which encourage children to get into a “headspace” for learning, and homes don’t. Nor are parents qualified or experienced in this.

After a couple of stressful weeks trying to get my children to do formal work, I gave up. It wasn’t worth the tears (mostly mine) or the hassle, and I realised it was spoiling what was meant to be the trip-of-a-lifetime for all of us. So I worked out what I thought was essential, and we went with that.

I already had a different view on education to most, as during teacher’s college I was very taken with a book we were required to read, called “Summerhill” by A. S. Neill. This book (still great reading if you can get hold of it) was about a school in the UK where children governed themselves along with teachers, and chose which lessons and activities they wanted to participate in.

Some went to formal classes from a young age, while others slacked off for years then knuckled down in their teens once they decided what they wanted to do. Neill’s philosophy was that children need to play and play and play – to work out what they liked and were good at, and to grow as a whole person instead of as just an academic learner. He also believed children don’t really need to learn subjects they’ll have no interest in in later life, so they can (and should) concentrate their learning where their interests are.

What’s more, he describes how children’s learning generally takes place in what can roughly be described as an upward spiral. Each year they learn a little more on a particular subject (say, reading), and that knowledge gradually expands. But if learning is interrupted, it’s not generally difficult to do two years learning on that subject (or even more) in a short space of time. If it WERE difficult or impossible to learn a lot in a short time, we’d have nobody who successfully achieved an education after a protracted illness or injury, and nobody who successfully gained an education after moving to a country with a different language. Nor would adults be successfully able to learn new skills comprehensively. So it’s actually a myth that continual school attendance is essential to keeping up with required learning.

All these ideas are anathema to many schools (although some, like Montessori, do operate according to these rough ideals), but they struck a chord with me. So I thought about what my kids really NEEDED to learn while we were on our trip.

Maths is the one subject where learning IS sequential and missing some early building-blocks can impact later learning. So we played lots of maths games and I devised lots of practical maths experiences. We also read a LOT: me to them, and them doing their own quiet reading. We joined public libraries in towns we stayed in, and bought books as we travelled (a necessary expense). All our children loved reading and I know that’s not universal, but children who are regularly read to and who see their parents read do tend to read more themselves. Verbal interaction is also important for kids, so my husband and I tried to talk to our kids as much as possible, and tried to make regular time with each of them on their own.

Apart from that, we did lots of on-the-road history and geography by visiting museums and sites of interest as we travelled, and there were plenty of games with balls, lots of music, and art activities.

And that was about it.

So: did it work? Well, the only evidence I have is my own kids as adults.

All three of my kids settled back into schooling after the 10-month break and went on to pass Year 12 with good to excellent marks. None of them suffered from the hiatus. My daughter is now aged 31, and works in middle-management for a large company. She’s clever, competent and highly valued at her workplace. My eldest twin (now almost 26) is a highly talented musician and gained entry to a prestigious university to study music performance. And my younger twin has a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing and, until he had to come home suddenly because of Coronavirus fears, was living in London having the time of his life.

Not only do I believe my kids didn’t suffer from their year away from schooling, but it did them far more good than harm. We formed very strong bonds as a family which hold to this day, and we all have amazing memories of that time. My husband and I were able to give them much more attention than many parents can because of work pressures, and that shows now in our relationships with them.

But I also believe their own interests and personalities flourished more because they were able to direct their own learning during that year. My musician son, for example, formed his undying love affair with his guitar that year, which has never left him. Perhaps if he hadn’t had the freedom to do that, he wouldn’t have formed such an intense and fruitful infatuation.

Stop worrying

My main message for parents? STOP WORRYING. Go easy on your primary-aged kids (and yourself) during these stressful days of isolation. If you can do some maths games, incidental maths (such as cooking together), lots of reading and talking, and utilise some educational internet programs (if you have a decent connection), that will do. Even if schools insist on lots of rote work, you don’t have to do it, and they won’t suffer if you don’t. For secondary-aged kids it’s a bit more complex, but even for them I’d advise not nagging or insisting on hours and hours sitting at a desk every day. These are strange new times for all of us, kids included, and everyone needs time to adjust.

My family looks back on our time in that caravan with enormous fondness. I’m well aware being cooped up in a house together for months is nothing like a caravan trip, but I do still believe it’s possible (and desirable) for parents to try to make this family time enjoyable, even memorable. Some families might well look back later on this difficult year as a time when they forged amazing new relationships with their kids, unfettered by commutes and play dates and after school sport. And the chances of that are higher if all family members aren’t trying to keep pace with the “busy” and often unnecessary work tasks set by schools. Your kids don’t want to remember this year as one of fights and nagging to complete work that’s probably largely unnecessary, and nor should you.

Relax. Enjoy your kids this year, if you can. Try to have some fun. And remember that everyone is in the same boat, and 2020 is a life-changing glitch for all Australians. You got this.


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