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Educating young children at home: key lessons from research

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 April 2020

Clare Brooks, Eleanor Kitto and Carole Scott.

The closure of schools and early years settings to all except for the children of key workers will have a profound impact on all parents, particularly those with young children. 

Without adequate data as to how schools and settings are responding, and in particular how they are planning to support families with children who are now mainly kept at home, it is nearly impossible to say what the impact will be on children and their achievement. 

However, the findings of the large-scale and highly detailed Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project do provide some valuable insights into the importance of early experiences which suggest what the impact on young children could be, and help us to consider how parents could respond. 

EPPSE was the UK’s first major study on the effectiveness of early years education. More than 3,000 children were assessed at the start of pre-school (at about age three) and their development monitored as they entered school until they made their post-16 education, training or employment choices.

The study revealed the importance of a good quality early years education for attainment at GCSE level and beyond – including lifelong earnings. But EPPSE also provides some insights into what the impact of this period of school closure is likely to be, both for children being educated at home, and for the children of key workers now being cared for in school.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish the current situation from “home-schooling” or home education. Parents who choose to educate their children at home are making a deliberate choice. Most parents who choose home education do so with the full intention of resourcing and educating children in a particular way. The Education Otherwise website estimates that 20,000 children are currently educated in this way.  

The closure of schools does not mean that children are no longer enrolled in their local school or early years settings but are “at home” whilst that school, or setting, is closed during the pandemic. Some establishments will therefore have sent material home for students and families. There may be on-line lessons or learning activities for children to participate in, and guidance provided for parents and carers. Many schools and settings are maintaining their responsibility to their enrolled children as well as those for the children of key workers.

The EPPSE project findings revealed that the quality of pre-school experiences matters. Compared to a control group without access to pre-school, those who attended even low-quality pre-school had an improvement in attainment (by an effect size of 0.12) in both English and Mathematics. For high quality pre-school this improvement rose to an effect size of 0.29 units for English and 0.34 for Mathematics. 

What the research does not suggest is that such an improvement can only take place in a setting away from home. In fact, the home learning environment was found to make a significant difference to children’s long term outcomes and underlies the importance of providing rich early learning experiences in the home. 

What we can conclude from this is that a child’s learning can be influenced by the experiences they are given during this period at home. A key finding from EPPSE is that rich learning activities are not only provided by particular institutions: these can be provided by parents in the home and will help foster good outcomes. Whilst some schools and settings may not be offering online lessons in the same way as secondary schools are, many are providing a range of educational activities for children to engage with at home. If these activities are of sufficiently high quality, they could have a transformative impact on parenting styles. 

But what does high quality mean in these circumstances? 

A simple principle would be to look for multisensory activities that are based in ‘real world’ experience which encourage language use and creativity. To extend further, schools can help parents to understand productive ways to play with their children, ways they can use the activities provided to support their development at home. Activities that seek to support children and their parents could have a transformative effect which would last beyond the current period of school closure. 

The UCL Institute of Education has compiled guidance and resources to help look at issues such as how to make the transition to home learning and how to involve the child or children in designing their learning spaces and establishing routines and talking to children about coronavirus – as well as links to teaching material for different ages.

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