Like all parents of school-aged children in my state, I recently received an email from the Education Department letting me know that term two will be entirely from home. I have often fancied the idea of homeschooling, but never imagined it would happen, and certainly not during a global pandemic. My middle-class assumptions had us trekking around forests and museums, while my nine-year-old son became a child genius, and I turned into one of those Pinterest mums making science craft out of egg cartons.
But really it has been a good opportunity to take a closer look at what he is learning in Primary school. The evidence shows that the school curriculum is failing our students, with a clear drop in performance over the last eighteen years. This is demonstrated in the latest OECD Program for International Student Assessment, where Australian kids have fallen almost a full school year behind in reading and science. They are already being a year behind in maths. I brought this up to my son’s teacher at the last interview and was immediately told that this testing is outdated and that children now have a greater ability to think creatively. Well, that’s fabulous — but if my son is to fulfil his goals of being a pilot, he’ll also need to be able to read and write. If you pick up a fourth-grade maths textbook from a hundred years ago, it would be almost tertiary level these days.
I have family and friends who are teachers – and they are wonderful, hardworking educators, who have also upended everything and moved online for the short term. Overall the problem lies in the National Curriculum, the latest of which was introduced in 2014, and focuses on three key areas: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding; general capabilities; and the cross-curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia; and sustainability. This centralised curriculum is structured in such a way that these priorities are emphasised and incorporated across all subjects. The existence of these core priorities results in less time for essential content, such as literacy and numeracy. The recent school climate strikes show that children are learning more about one side of political activism, with a lot less critical thinking than the curriculum might suggest. Why does the State mandate these priorities, about which parents have no choice in?
So, will this COVID-19 pandemic lead more parents to think about homeschooling? Or at least school choice? Before the lockdown, there were 30,000 students registered for homeschooling in Australia, with each state having their own registration. Currently, they can choose whether to follow the national curriculum or not. Most commonly, it is urban, secular parents disillusioned with the test-driven, one-size-fits-all model.
Compulsory government schooling began in the 1850s in Massachusetts, where an estimated 80 per cent of the population resisted, often with guns, until the final outpost surrendered their children in the 1880s – when the area was seized by militia and the children were marched off to school under armed guard. Harvard Law School, also in Massachusetts, will be hosting an anti-home-schooling conference in June. One speaker, Professor James Dwyer says that “the reason parent-child relationships exist is because the State confers legal parenthood”. That gave me chills. In Germany, homeschooling has been illegal since World War II, and parents must leave the country if they choose this method for their children.
Here in Australia, it was also difficult to enforce, and education became compulsory in the 1870s, apparently to decrease crime and teach children how to be moral law-abiding citizens. Currently, we spend 5.9 per cent of GDP — $111.8 billion — on education, with 60 per cent of our students in government schools, and the rest in independent. Are we getting good value for money? As a mum of three, who has seen a drop in standards, I am going to say no and await the howls. According to John Taylor Gatto, “In our secular society, school has become the replacement for church, and like church, it requires that its teachings be taken on faith.” He also said that “school is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned.” Gatto was an award-winning teacher for nearly 30 years before he announced that he no longer wished to “hurt kids to make a living”, and then went into a public speaking and writing career promoting open-source learning and unschooling. He felt it was impossible for schooling and education to be the same thing.
Most schools have done reasonably well shifting over to this new method for the short term –- the boy is loving all the extra screen time he’s now allowed, and maybe this will lead in a business boom for optometrists. They even have allocated times for exercise, which they record and upload for the teacher to assess. A brave new world indeed, although it gives a good sense of normality for some of the students. But only for the students lucky enough to live in a household where they can afford multiple computers and high-speed Wi-Fi. For the families with parents working from home, or out of work, or especially in abusive households, the idea of education continuing is a fantasy. But will it make much of a difference, given our already tumbling standards? While scrolling online, I came across a photo from a friend with a large family. They have shifted one of the older girls out of her bedroom to convert it into a classroom for all her siblings, and have managed to scramble together enough laptops, iPads, and headphones. This family also run a small business, and several of the children are competitive athletes. My friend really has it all together, but she is already aware that this version of homeschooling as mostly just more computer time – and it’s only been a couple of weeks.
Nevertheless, before we know it, children will be back off to school, and life will slowly return to pre–pandemic normality for those lucky enough to still have a job. But what will the nearly four million students have learnt in this lockdown term? For the first time in a long time, it will be the full responsibility of the parents.