With schools closed to most pupils until at least September, the spotlight is firmly on home schooling and how to stop children falling behind.
With a study finding that two million children have done virtually no work during lockdown, questions are being asked about why that is the case.
The digital divide is undoubtedly an issue, with some pupils having no access to the internet or technology, and the government has been under fire for failing to deliver enough laptops to the disadvantaged youngsters who need them most.
But even with the technology, many parents feel as though it’s not being used to its full potential – with some teachers stating safeguarding guidelines prevent them from offering classes from home.
So while some schools are delivering online lessons and daily support – much to the delight of working parents who are struggling to fit in home school with their own jobs – others have had limited contact with pupils.
Mum Rachel Nolan, from Rochdale, says she’s ‘starting to get angry’ over the lack of input from her children’s school.
She said: “Our school posts daily work but we’ve had no contact at all. My eldest daughter’s teacher hasn’t even bothered to comment on a single photo we have sent in, not even a well done or very good.
“I feel completely let down and very disappointed that the school simply don’t seem to care. I have been doing my own thing with my kids but I am very worried about sending my kids back to a school that just isn’t good enough.”
There are however numerous schools across Greater Manchester that are excelling with their online learning platforms – and parents have nothing but praise for how they have handled the transformation to home working.
Deborah Todd’s 12-year-old son Noah is a pupil at Manchester Academy in Greenheys, near Rusholme, and says what the school is doing under the leadership of head James Eldon is ‘absolutely amazing’.
“Since well before lockdown they were organised, clear, planned and ready with a fantastic IT system and plan,” said the mum-of-two.
“They have been extremely good at communications – emails, links, texts and constant good communications ensuring that as parents we know what’s going on.”
She added: “Noah has been having live lessons since about Easter, plus other work. From next week he will be getting three lessons a day online, plus additional work. It’s exceptional. He’s working hard and thriving.”
The lottery of experiences led to a call for a national plan this week.
From a teachers’ perspective, they say the demands have never been so great and they were ‘dropped in it’ by the government’s sudden announcement to close.
Many are still in schools working with vulnerable and key worker children and having to set online work for their pupils at home.
And while some parents cry out for more work, one secondary school teacher told us that some families simply don’t want to engage with any home learning at all.
She said: “Most households have some form of technology, these kids have all got phones – they’ve got X-Boxes and the internet, but they can’t be bothered to access the work.
“It comes back to the same problem of poor parenting. A large section of society places no value on education and the parents of these pupils are just not bothered at all.”
The teacher, who works at a high school in Wigan, added: “I set up a tutorial online and had one child turn up out of 17. I even changed the time of it from a morning to an afternoon session – as parents are letting kids stay up gaming all night – and I still only had a few of them attend. That’s what we’re battling against.”
She and others in the teaching profession say they were left playing catch-up when the government announced the closure of schools with ‘no warning’.
Without a firm plan for September – by which time Boris Johnson has said he wants all children back in school – they say that with current social distancing measures in place, it is ‘incomprehensible’ to see education settings reopening to full cohorts.
However, schools have already adapted to the challenge of keeping a school community together remotely.
Simon Hunt is a teacher at Tottington Primary School in Bury, where staff have been setting online learning activities for pupils, as well as Zoom classes and assemblies.
He said: “This week, we decided to link those at school and those at home by creating a whole school class project. Basically, each Monday the head and deputy deliver a school assembly via Zoom so parents and kids at home can watch and the teachers in school and keyworker kids, watch in their class.
“The first project was based around sunflowers. Kids at school got their seeds to take home and grow and staff delivered sunflower seeds to the rest of the whole school, directly to their houses.”
The same activities are done by children at home and those still in school and each Friday they catch up online to see how everyone has got on and to award certificates.
Mr Hunt added: “The whole point is that even though we are not at school and together, we are still a family and technology has enabled us to stay in contact and share the work of the children in school and those at home.”
Addressing some teachers’ concerns over using Zoom and other online platforms, he said: “We go off the council guidance, but Zoom is as safe as any platform including Google / Microsoft Teams if it’s done right and the password is not shared publicly.
“It’s the same with anything, used in the right way with clear information beforehand is what should be done. Misrepresentation, or a one-off problem which was avoidable, should not impact if we should use something, we should look at the how or why it happened. A pencil is dangerous if you do not use it correctly – and stick the sharp part in your eye.”
But, with support so patchy across Greater Manchester, a return to normality cannot come quickly enough for many Greater Manchester parents.
Dad Mark Denison, from Bolton, told us his daughters were ‘desperate’ to return after months of ‘haphazard’ support.
“They really need to be setting work and having online classrooms like a Zoom call chasing up the work,” he said of his children’s school.
“That would also mean there would be more engagement.
“There was a pack given and we get a call, but the call is more welfare. What had she been doing rather than where are you up to with work.
“I have a 10-year-old who needs pushing and motivating, she wants to have online lessons. Then I have a 15-year-old who has been really good doing her work. Both are desperate to go back to school. My wife is an infection control specialist nurse so I get to see and hear the reality, not just the hype.”
Meanwhile, other parents are left wondering if their children will ever catch up.
A mum-of-two from Rochdale told the M.E.N’s Manchester Family : “They get about an hour’s work to do for the week and even that is self marking.
“When I queried it with school, they pretty much told me to research, plan and mark it myself.”
Since last week she says the school has been putting a timetable on its website, but that involves parents finding the work, supporting, marking and feedback.
The mum, whose two sons are in Year 5 and Year 6, added: “I have friends with kids at the same school having the same issues. My major concerns are time is being wasted when we’re willing to do the work. Their education will be behind other kids whose schools choose to educate. When and how will they ever catch up?”
Another parent with a daughter in Reception said she’s been relying on a friend sending her work from a different school.
She said: “My friend who has a little boy in another school has started sending me their lesson plans and tasks because we don’t have a structure for the learning ideas we get given.
“It’s been mainly links to websites for number and phonics work, mostly games.
“There was a lot of links thrown our way, but no sort of guidance in how to use them in the most productive way to help learning. I am a childminder and have worked in pre-schools in private nurseries so I have an understanding of early years curriculum and phonics and how children learn, but if I hadn’t had that knowledge I think it would have been harder.
“A lot of parents I have spoken to have done their own thing or just not done anything hardly at all over the whole period.”
The issue was highlighted by MPs from the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee this week when they quizzed teaching union bosses over the impact of coronavirus on education and children’s services.
Chairman Robert Halfon MP told the panel: “The evidence on the lockdown’s negative effect on disadvantaged pupils is getting more and more alarming.
“So we know that 4m pupils may not have had regular contact with teachers according to serious studies and that over 2m children are not doing homework.”
David Johnston MP suggested the issue had stemmed from the beginning of lockdown when NEU general secretary Dr Mary Bousted issued a statement saying that with normal education suspended ‘teachers should not be teaching a full timetable, or routinely marking work’.
Dr Bousted replied: “What I was emphasising then was, with the schools being closed, we had to look at new ways of working and teachers have done that incredibly. Now, the fact of the matter is, online learning is important, but it’s not a panacea, so we’ve done a survey of our members which said that we know that 700,000 children have no access to the internet, so online learning isn’t available for them.
“So many teachers in state schools have had to use other methods of creating work for them and helping them to learn.”
She said a survey of members had found that 97% of secondary teachers have set work for classes online, while 26% of primary teachers and 20% of secondary teachers sent or took work to students’ homes.
But she said: “Many of them have had real problems with the technology – either the technology not working, or children not accessing the technology. And the other issue about online learning is it’s very difficult to know what children have learnt. The Open University says it takes a hundred hours to get one very good hour of online learning.”
Addressing the Education Select Committee, Dr Bousted said: “Many teachers have been working in schools and then preparing online learning for their classes and working extremely hard in order to do that.
“What we needed from government, in order to support that, was a much better offer on digital learning. And we needed those children without access to the internet to be provided with laptops.”
Moving forward to the new school year, she added: “We need a national plan.”
The government has said it will do whatever it can ‘to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus’.
On Friday it announced a £1 billion ‘catch-up’ fund for schools over ‘lost learning’. The Prime Minister said £650 million will be shared across all state primary and secondary schools, alongside a £350m national tutoring scheme.
It says it has already committed over £100m to help home learning and while more than 100,000 laptops and nearly 19,000 4G wireless routers have already been distributed to local authorities and academy trusts, ‘thousands of devices continue to be delivered each day’ and ‘laptops and tablets will continue to be ordered and delivered throughout June’.
The Department for Education has also stressed that some leading state schools have collaborated to open The Oak National Academy – an initiative backed by £300k of government funding – to deliver video lessons and resources for any teacher in the country to make use of across a broad range of subjects, for every year group from Reception through to Year 10.
Have you been happy with the level of support and communication from your child’s school? Are you a teacher who feels the government needs to offer more support? Let us know in the comments, or share your views on our Manchester Family Facebook page.