“I just can’t wait to speak to her teacher once they’re back in. I want to know how my daughter’s doing. I want to know how she compares to the rest of her class.”
This is a quote from a focus group that I ran last month to find out how parents had got on as not just the primary carers of their children, but the primary teachers, too. In a rather understated way, this single mum, from a council estate in central London, was articulating something that could become a significant upshot of Covid – and signal a big change for the relationship between parents and schools.
The simple fact is this: parents have had a look inside the black box of teaching and learning – and a fair few are not going to want to close the lid again. I doubt many will have been inspired to take up homeschooling full time – indeed most will have been put off the idea for life (myself included) – but I feel sure the dynamic between parents and their schools might have been changed forever despite this.
On one level, of course, mums and dads have discovered just how difficult teaching truly is. The corollary is that during six of the last 12 months, parents have been thinking about how lessons are planned, curriculums are sequenced and progress tracked, in a way that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
They have also been watching their children’s teachers teach on Zoom or Teams, and many will have been engaging with them on a daily or weekly basis to swap notes and get advice.
This is very, very different to the almost transactional relationship that school has historically represented for many mums and dads: teachers teach; we parent. Obviously, most families encourage reading, go to museums, play I-spy – but this would only usually be seen as a supplement to the main business of what went on in the classroom.
Of course good primaries and secondaries have always seen the teaching and learning journey as one that can’t be properly undertaken without the buy-in, support and collaboration of parents, but what happened under lockdown took that to a completely different dimension.
There will be some – many, even – from all walks of parenting life who will want to revert to how things were in the now-strange world that we lived in before Covid. But there will be many who won’t want to revert. What parents think they have learnt about teaching is a genie that won’t easily be put back into the bottle.
Quite how this new relationship plays out in the future is unclear. On the one hand this is a huge opportunity for teachers and heads to build deeper, more engaged, more fruitful relationships with their parent body and the communities in which they operate.
But there are risks, too. The first is that schools come under siege from newly needy parents demanding to know every last detail of every decision that took place in every lesson – this would prove a huge distraction for already overworked teachers. The second, relatedly, is that teachers feel forced to engage on an almost minute-by-minute basis with one group of parents, while others (almost inevitably those from poorer homes and distracted by the challenges of poverty) get less of the attention they need and deserve.
To be clear, some of this change was happening pre-Covid: the age-old phenomenon of tittle-tattle at the school gates was already being amplified by parents’ Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and heads were feeling the heat from certain groups of parents in a way that some CEOs feel the heat from activist shareholders. But those groups will have grown infinitely more active and feel infinitely more empowered by six months of homeschooling.
As in other walks of life, Covid has accelerated a process that was already in train. The question is, will schools and their relationship with parents become deeper and more developmental, or angrier and more antagonistic? I have huge faith that most heads and teachers, however exhausted by the last year, will manage to take advantage of this new reality – they are pragmatists and optimists in equal measure – and navigate their way along the first path. Maybe some educational good will come of Covid – God knows we need it.