Muting the Teacher: When home schooling means no schooling – David Behrens

It has been a long time since I was at school. Quite how long was brought home a few years ago on a trip to a museum in Leeds, where the 
mocked-up Victorian classroom bore more resemblance to my alma mater than the one in which Behrens junior was doing his SATs.

A coronavirus information sign in during England's third national lockdown

It was the desk lids I remembered most. They made a loud slam when you dropped them and it was the cane for any boy who “accidentally” did it during a lesson.

At the corner of each desk was a stained ceramic inkwell. Fountain pens with ink cartridges had made them redundant by my day but there they remained, a legacy of a time when flicking ink-soaked bits of paper from one desk to another was what boys did to enliven an otherwise tedious lesson on simultaneous equations.

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I’d like to think it was harmless larking around – certainly not mendacious – but perhaps the teachers didn’t see it that way. Least of all poor old Mr Price, in whom one of us induced near heart failure by climbing in through a first-floor window half way through the lesson. A low roof outside explained the trick but didn’t excuse it. As I recall, the whole class had to stay behind and write “I must not enter the classroom through the window” 100 times.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Fast forward a few years and technology has brought new ways of securing an hour’s detention. Behrens the younger, having long since dashed off his SATs and more recently donned the virtual mortar board of a trainee teacher, seems to be on the receiving end of some of these. And suddenly they don’t seem funny at all.

Not even the most disruptive pupil in my class would have dared tell Sir to shut up but home schooling has driven a coach and horses through even that taboo. Muting The Teacher, it’s called.

One or two pupils press the mute button on their Zoom screens and after a few moments the others follow suit, leaving the teacher shouting into the wind. Punishment may ensue but for the moment no one will hear it being meted out.

This seems most common among disenfranchised older pupils who are hard to discipline in the first place and harder still when they’re off the premises and on their own turf.

For many of them home schooling means no schooling; virtual learning is no learning at all – and there has been close to a whole year of it. They are as fed up as the rest of us and those mute buttons are just the tip of an iceberg.

I was surprised to hear they were being used where my son is working, since it isn’t a school at all but a further- education college where attendance is voluntary. For some, though, it may have been Hobson’s choice. “Are you going to get a qualification or just sit around all your life?” they will have been asked, probably more than once.

It’s hard not to see this as part of a spiral of demotivation, with the likely effect of a catastrophic falling-off in the number of well-qualified young people emerging from communities at which the national “levelling-up” agenda is targeted. But no amount of adjustment can make level a steep, slippery slope. Lack of education puts these areas at a disadvantage that will set them back by a generation or more.

This was already known. Ministers have for years been punishing parents whose children turn up at school late or not at all or who arrange holidays during term time. A day missed might never be recovered; that has been the mantra. As recently as last June, Gavin Williamson, the beleaguered Education Secretary, was threatening to fine parents who did not send their kids back to class in September.

His abandonment of that policy – even temporarily – will come back to haunt the most disadvantaged areas as the lost days turn into months and 
the long-term consequences on employment, or the lack of it, become fully apparent.

It’s a difficult subject in a week in which science has dominated the headlines and no one with any sense is doubting the science. Yet we have still not fully embraced the debate about the extent to which we allow it to override all the other mechanisms that support life and protect society.

I may be risking the cane once more for thinking this out loud. But deprived of day-to-day contact, it’s hard right now to tell how many among us – whether of the fountain-pen generation or the Zoom age – have chosen to press their own mute buttons.

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