21 Apr 2020
By Alan Peters
Closing schools has to be the correct decision in the circumstances. The case can certainly be made, though, that this should have happened earlier, before Coronavirus took too firm a hold on the nation. We are told that the Government acted in response to ‘the science’. It depends on where you stand politically, I suppose, whether you accept that particular statement.
The decision to allow parents who work in key industries to send their kids to school also makes some sense. To beat Covid 19 key aspects of society must continue to function. We must conclude, though, it is very tough on these students.
Not all; some will enjoy the friendship and opportunity for activities school offers in these times of Coronavirus induced isolation. Others, though, already anxious about school will find it a lonely place without close friends. Even worse, those required to attend alien institutions, where they know nobody, could really suffer, especially ones who find coping with new situations difficult.
Maybe in this time of Covid crisis there is no other solution, but one cannot help but feel that children’s emotional well-being is featuring pretty lowly in the Government’s thinking at the moment. Still, there is not much that is new there. Whichever colour is worn by the party in power.
We have to feel most sorry for those in Years 11 and 13, of course. To suddenly introduce qualification on the basis of teacher assessment, when there could be all kinds of motivations behind both the work being assessed and the way it has been judged, is unacceptable. Some argue that, for kids who have planned to put their best efforts into the exams themselves, they are getting what they deserve. This is gammon-ism at its worst. It is like criticising a cricket team who save their big hitters for the end of the fifty over innings, ready to play the extravagant shots if needed. Qualifications by the Duckworth-Lewis method.
It is surprising that an offer is not there for these pupils to come into school to take their examinations, perhaps just a few at a time. Maybe the risks of coming in while ill, or of questions entering the public domain are just too great, but if possible, holding several sittings for the Maths exam does not seem too onerous in the circumstances, and certainly better than the current alternative.
But while, rightly enough, much attention is being given to Years 11 and 13, there are two other year groups who could end up suffering even more, and these seem to be forgotten by a Government and media that is focussing totally on the ‘now’. Every child is going to suffer a little thanks to the virus’s impact on education. But in terms of exams, the impact on students up to Year 8 is likely to be minimal, becoming less and less as the children get younger. Even Year 9 students should be able to compensate with their loss of learning. But Years 10 and 12 are firmly into their GCSE and A Level courses. Potentially, they are going to lose six months of their final fifteen as they await their own exam period.
If, as we all hope, it is over by September, will the wish to get back to normal mean that little or no allowances are made for these students? Will the only concession be a reduced content to their courses, with more in-depth questions set on a smaller range of topics? If this does happen, it is hardly a fair option. Or will they forever be regarded as the year groups who escaped a proper test? Given less onerous exams than usual, will their grades be regarded by certain groups of employers as somehow less meritorious than those of their older and younger compatriots?
It is sensible to conclude that the current examination years will, on the whole, be treated kindly. How many teachers will really fail to give the benefit of the doubt to their borderline students? What appeal board will, in the present circumstances, not look kindly if a result is sent for review? Everybody, even employers, will understand this.
That generosity may well be past by the time Years 10 and 12 sit their final exams, and we might be in the unique position of seeing a drop in grades. That is not to decry the current examinees, who are fully deserving of national support, but nor does it suggest that their slightly younger peers are less able. Or hard working. Or committed. Or in need of a proper review of the final year of their respective courses.
It is not just students who are struggling through these difficult months, of course. Parents are suddenly expected to become teachers – the two roles rarely mix well. For the time being, most teachers are secure enough, although those looking to change jobs this Autumn might find their plans put back for a term or three. Teaching assistants, support and ancillary staff, peripatetic teachers and supply teachers are much less certain of their positions. Particularly the last group, who have most likely suddenly lost all access to a wage. (At the time of writing, we wait to see what the Chancellor might provide as a cushion to those who operate as freelancers.)
Then there are the various suppliers and supporters who work around education. From the village pub that provides lunches to the village primary, to the factories which produce resources, to the websites that host jobs, to the training providers who suddenly have no-one to coach. We wait to see how fee-paying schools will react. There will surely be a huge revolt if they attempt to make parents fork out thousands for a term consisting of work packs and the odd remote lesson, even if their parent contracts allow them to do so. At the same time, their staff bill is likely to account for two thirds of their income, and with most being charities, they are not permitted to build up large contingency funds. Somebody must pay those staffing costs.
But the impact of Coronavirus on adults employed in education is really little different to that on adults working in other industries. Further, we are teachers, and that means putting our students first.
Let us just hope that there is an understanding, from the highest echelons of Government, that the impact of losing up to six months of schooling will be felt by many, including (more than most), those a year away from their final exams.
Maybe school will return to normal in May, or after the summer half term. Maybe plans are already being considered for the exams due in the summer of 2021. The sad reality is that neither is very likely.