Starline: a collaborative civic response to support parents

Hamid Patel CBE, Chief Executive of Star Academies

The unexpected opportunity to spend endless days in each other’s uninterrupted company has undoubtedly brought golden moments for some families. Parents are their children’s first educators and lockdown, for some, has brought a chance to pause, prioritise and learn together. However, as the weeks of confinement have stretched into months, the organisation of home learning has brought a number of challenges that testify to the inherent complexity of parenting, teaching and growing up.

Three conversations illustrate the point well.

The first was with a father of a 13-year-old who had been asked to read Oliver Twist at home. Delighted that his son was being challenged to grapple with classic literature, he was frustrated at not having the strategies to make this gem of a book with its rich seam of didactic messages more accessible. Like many parents, he was searching for the specialist subject knowledge that would help him to inspire his child to tackle new and complex material.

In the second, a mother explained that she was running a business from home and trying to support her children with their schoolwork. The school had provided extensive study packs and made regular supportive phone calls to the family, but the packs were unwieldy and needed navigation. The mother was increasingly exhausted by the multiple demands on her time that were creating tensions in family relationships and affecting her own work.

The third conversation was with a teacher who explained that although she had no problem commanding the attention of a class of 30 children, she was struggling to get her own two out of bed in the morning, let alone establish a learning routine: being a professional is no guarantee that your own children will be inherently self-motivated, nor that they will listen to you. The indignant reminder that ‘You’re not my teacher!’ will be familiar to many parents.

Discourse on Mumsnet shows the stress and anxiety being experienced by parents whose ‘new normality’ includes making sense of the curriculum, motivating their children, defusing tensions and keeping up with their own work demands, all against a backdrop of  profound uncertainty about the future.

It was in this context that StarLine was established by a group of partners including Star Academies, Mumsnet, the Confederation of School Trusts, Triple P UK and a number of academy trusts. A collaborative civic effort, Starline is a national helpline for parents and carers that is operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic. As well as sharing their expertise, all partners have pledged resources to the project, including a team of 200 volunteer teachers, education and parenting specialists from across their organisations who provide telephone support on rota to parents across the country. This team is enhanced by ten of Her Majesty’s Inspectors who have been temporarily deployed by Ofsted to support the initiative.

Around 150 calls a week are made to StarLine – fewer than originally anticipated but more complex in their scope. The calls are transferred by the switchboard operator to the most appropriate specialists. Conversations sometimes last for 40 minutes or more – a great indicator that the experts on the end of the line have the time to listen and to offer bespoke advice on topics ranging from early reading to university entry requirements. Schools across the country have promoted the initiative: calls from parents anywhere are warmly welcomed and kept confidential.

Alongside StarLine calls, experts are writing StarBlogs to address some of the common themes that concern parents. Issues such as staying safe online and helping children to stay connected have been published so far. The StarLive YouTube series is broadcast weekly on Wednesdays at 8.30am and features ‘physically distanced’ but nonetheless engaging discussions with guests on aspects of parenting and education. StarChatbox, a live chat function, will be launched shortly as a further medium for through which parents can communicate about the challenges they are facing.

So, what have the calls taught us in the first weeks of StarLine?

First and foremost, parents are making amazing sacrifices to support their children’s education. Many are completely reconfiguring their own lives to make time for their children’s learning. They are the unsung, un-applauded heroes of the coronavirus crisis. We heard from a nurse, exhausted by her stressful work on the frontline, who has spent hours each evening helping her children with their homework after they have attended school during the day.

Secondly, bolstering their children’s confidence and protecting them from anxiety is taking its toll on parents’ emotional wellbeing. Parents know that children quickly sense worries and react to them, so they are trying doubly hard to remain positive and upbeat.  Schools will be doing a great deal of work to support pupils’ mental health when they reopen: it is important that the recovery plan does not overlook parents.

Thirdly, we have heard direct accounts about the dispiriting and deeply damaging impact of poverty from parents struggling to put food on the table before they can think about feeding their children’s minds. Inevitably this pandemic, like all other public health disasters throughout history, is hurting disadvantaged families disproportionately. Online learning is impossible to manage when there is no internet access, or when laptops are shared. Hunger, overcrowding, temporary accommodation and chronic illness have not disappeared simply because they have been overshadowed by COVID-19.

Finally, calls taken over recent weeks have shown us the power that great teachers have to shape children’s lives and ambitions. Parents have told us how much they miss the staff at their children’s schools, not just because of their specialist knowledge, understanding of the curriculum and expertise in assessment,  but because of the way that teachers can stand back from a situation objectively and use their wealth of experience to reshape children’s thinking.

As we take tentative steps on the uncharted road to recovery, parents will experience a new rollercoaster of emotions. Many want their children to return to school – for the sake of their education and the social benefits of seeing their friends. Many are dependent on schools reopening in order to resume their own jobs. All are concerned about their children’s safety.

Feelings will be mixed among parents whose children are in the groups who are prioritised by Government return to school in the summer term. As the spectre of a ‘second peak’ haunts our collective nightmares leaders will need to provide extensive and well-founded reassurance about the measures they are taking to protect the school community. The positive partnerships that have flourished during lockdown cannot be lost as schools cautiously open their doors. An honest, reflective culture is crucial. Where leaders communicate plans clearly, listen to concerns openly and answer questions honestly, a smooth phased return is likely to be successful.

Parents also need to know that their sacrifices have been worthwhile and without their input the chasm between actual and virtual school would not have been bridged.  We need to look forward with optimism: the home learning revolution has not been easy, but it has taught us many lessons.