My daughter was in Year 5 when the first lockdown brought her education to an abrupt halt. A bright only child, mature for her age because she spends so much time with adults, she’d been doing very well in the classroom. But then the state primary she attends in our village in Essex closed its doors to all but key worker children. I’m a 49-year-old single mother. My daughter’s father lives in Durham. I had no choice but to become her full-time teacher.
While some of her friends in private or religious schools were receiving a whole day of live Zoom teaching, my daughter’s school was very disappointing. What they did provide was an email every Monday morning, packed with multiple different lessons for parents to print off, somehow quickly get their heads around, then teach to our children as best we could.
My business – a children’s play centre – shut down along with the schools, so I was at home. I found myself teaching my daughter from 9.30am until 4.30pm every day. Other than the weekly email, we received no contact from the school, which, like many, lacks funding and has class sizes of 30-plus. My daughter’s after-school club, where she mixed with older children, was closed. Extracurricular dance classes went on hold and the swimming pool was shut.
Since Covid, my daughter has received very little or no homework as the teachers seem to feel the children already have enough on their plates. I don’t know what happened to her foreign language lessons. My previously high-achieving daughter was starting to fall behind the level she had been at before – not just a little, but dramatically. By the end of each week of lockdown, her maths and English were worse. She’d lost interest in doing better; any desire to excel. It was heartbreaking to see her sliding backwards.
Friction began to develop between us and the school, as they resented me trying to push her beyond the slow pace at which her class was moving. Many of the families in our village didn’t even have enough computers for their multiple children. My daughter’s academic success was riding on all the other local parents’ capabilities, and that felt deeply unfair on her.
When the second lockdown arrived, my daughter was in Year 6. This time, there was at least a school registration every day, which took place over Zoom. But my daughter gained little from it, as everyone on the call was at such different levels both academically and behaviourally. There wasn’t the opportunity for much academic input from the teacher and my daughter quickly grew bored.
By this point it was time for us to apply to secondary schools. She had passed her 11-plus exams, but her father and I were unsure where to send her. We both agreed we couldn’t risk her being stuck with no proper education again should further lockdowns ensue. And with no SATS for the second year running, streaming would be very hit and miss.
“You have to either pay or pray,” a friend of mine once said of guaranteeing a decent education. We aren’t a religious family, so going down the church school route wouldn’t have felt right for us. We’re also not a wealthy family. I am state-educated, and no-one in my family had been to private school. I was the first in my immediate family to attend university. I launched a new business this year (I distil a low alcohol gin alternative called Mooze 12%) but, even when pooling my funds with my daughter’s father, we couldn’t afford the fees for an independent school.
It was him who suggested we ask other family members to chip in. I had my reservations, but agreed. I had to do whatever it took to make sure my daughter’s education wasn’t ruined long-term by Covid. So we asked my daughter’s paternal grandfather, and my parents, to help. My parents were initially sceptical. I was asking them to put money into a pot for a private education for my daughter, when their perception of such schools was that they could be a posh waste of money.
But I managed to talk them around and, in September, my daughter will start at an independent school that charges £5,500 a term. We will have to make sacrifices to send her there. My parents are dipping into their savings to help fund it, while for me there won’t be any holidays for a while. Every day, I will have to drive her there and back, 45 minutes each way.
I won’t have a circle of school mum friends any more, since it is far from our house. I am a bit worried I won’t be able to keep up with their lifestyles anyway, as the fees will leave me skint. The school days are long, so I’ll see my daughter less, and so will her father, who sees her every other weekend, as she’ll have to attend on Saturdays. But he says we’ll have to make a sacrifice.
We’ll all be making big changes. But we’ll do so in order that, if schools do close again, our daughter’s education will not grind to a halt. The new school staff have already assured me that if we go back into lockdown, exactly the same learning will continue over Zoom, full-time and unaided by parents.
I never thought it would come to this. Pre-pandemic, I’d always believed we didn’t need private school; that whatever happened at state school, we could get our daughter through.
School closures have changed all that. Yes, we’re paying a price. But I feel we’ve had to invest in a lockdown-proof education. With so many children off school again even now, as their “bubbles” have burst, it seems we have made the right decision.
As told to Rosa Silverman