My Y6 son is in the next room, working away at an Oak National Academy English lesson. He’s dressed today, so that’s at least a small improvement on yesterday, when I realised he was still in his pyjamas as I set him his work schedule for the day. This seems like a good moment to reflect on what I learned, from one parent’s perspective, from the last iteration of the “Perks Home Academy for slightly stroppy but otherwise capable Y6”.
First, a bit more context. My son is Y6. He just sneaked into GDS for KS1. I think that might be a fair reflection of his current achievement, too. If you’re secondary then let’s say Set 2. At this level you tend to get children who find the work tough but are diligent and resilient and get there by dint of hard work. You also get those who are quick to understand, but not so great when they have to put pen to paper due to a slightly slapdash approach. We are in the latter camp. Every now and again he produces something really terrific but it’s all a bit inconsistent. He will often settle for ‘done-ish’ rather than than ‘done well’. He’s definitely stepped up in Y6, and I’ve every faith in him because he is a fabulous young person, but I know I’d occasionally have to grit my teeth if I was his teacher.
We hugely appreciate all the work that his teachers are doing – the setting of work, the contact, the good humour, the postcards, the reading, the checking of answer sheets before publishing, the Seesaw platform that allows the children to interact with each other’s work: all of it. This is just about what does and doesn’t work for him and me.
I’m sure, like me, every teacher has done cover lessons and experienced that frustration when the class doesn’t get something and it feels like you have nothing to fall back on. You ask questions to try to work out where the solid foundation is on which to build a bridge across the current obstacle but all you seem to find is shifting sand. The difference between that, and your own class, where you just know what will work, is so noticeable. It’s no-one’s fault. When roles are reversed, the other teacher covering your class has exactly the same experience.
Well, for me, supporting my son is like that. In fact, it’s like doing that with a class in another school in a subject I don’t teach. The world of the cover supervisor I guess. To take an example: long addition of prices needed to solve a typical “how much change” word problem. He still hasn’t been able to accurately explain how he has been taught to do this. I’m still not certain where he has been taught to put the “borrow and payback” digits, or even if that’s what his teacher calls them. In the English lesson he’s doing now he’s been asked to use a Venn diagram to categorise time conjunctions but has been asked to come up with his own categories. I love categorisation exercises but he is baulking at choosing the categories for himself. Given loads of time I could have watched the video right through so when he came to me stuck on this I could have guided him to a suggestion that fitted with the teacher’s intention, but there’s no way I’ve got that time. I just had to make an educated guess.
Most of my support needs to be in quick bursts between all the work I’m doing, some of which is hard and needs sustained thought. I’ve a degree, maths to A-Level standard, QTS, and write fluently and accurately, but I frequently flounder to get up to speed in the almost instant way I can when teaching my own class.
So what does this mean. For me and my son; in our context, what works?
What he and I need most is:
- crystal clear explanations, even of things that he’s been taught many times before;
- a good example for him and me to look at – all I need for the long addition is one exemplar from his teacher showing the borrow and payback digits in place;
- work that is structured to reduce corner-cutting e.g. tight writing structure not open paragraph; totally clear expectations about the amount of working to show; those Venn categories would have been nice…
- partially repetitive work he can definitely complete, in preference to imaginative work he will decide he can’t do.
That might sound like a recipe for drudgery but it doesn’t have to be. If this is how the core of his work is set, there is loads of scope for more engaging and imaginative material too. I’m making him watch the latest Saint David of Attenborough series. In the summer term his Y5 teacher did some lovely recorded reading for the class. Seesaw allows his teacher to set optional things they can share, like “maybe you could sow some seeds or put a bean like this in a jamjar and show us all a drawing, photo, or notes and measurements as it grows”. Last lockdown some of his class posted things they’d done on their own initiative (not exactly his own initiative, to be honest, but we built a hedgehog house and he learned to saw planks and use a drill and we posted pictures of that).
I think what I’m saying is that setting work for remote learning is a bit like setting cover work. You have to avoid work where lots of them might get stuck because unsticking them, even for a parent with QTS, not too much daily stress, AND ONLY ONE CHILD! is still bloody hard. I think this is far more important than trying to cover the same curriculum you would in-person. I also think it’s terribly easy to underestimate how likely children are to get stuck.
For this reason, Oak National Academy is pretty good. I certainly wouldn’t want his school to just set a load of that and be done but as an example of what (mostly) works for us as core work, it tends towards ticking the boxes. I know how much work’s gone into the Oak lessons so I hope it doesn’t sound degrading to say it makes excellent cover work. That is a heartfelt compliment.
The one massive proviso here is that my son hasn’t really had any live online provision. Would he feel obliged to focus more? Would he love the live interaction (he is the child who is desperate to contribute in class) or would he find it harder because he “can but can’t” ask questions? Might he miss something and lose the thread of the lesson – harder to stop and ask for help? I think he’d engage and it would be okay but then we’ve only got one child, a spare laptop, a desk in his room, and a half-decent broadband connection. I know there are children in his class that don’t have that. Maybe if the government actually meant what they say about bending over backwards to safeguard every child’s education they’d have used the last six months to get a chromebook to every child who needed one, and decent, affordable broadband or mobile data to every family, rather than putting all their eggs in the easy and cheap “schools are safe” basket. But that ship has sailed.
I hope these thoughts are of some use to somebody. Thanks for all the hard work and support. There are a few dickheads that can’t see past the notion of teachers on holiday since March. They probably only do 20 hours a week on a radio show and spend the rest of the day lazing about on Twitter. Or maybe their jobs are more complex than it first seems, as well.