Schools are far more than mere exam factories. Across the UK, teachers in 32,000 schools and colleges care for children on over half the days in any given year. Or we did until the lockdown in March 2020. Since then, children have missed the best part of two full terms. And while they were out of our sight, some were at risk. Six year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, for example, may have been rescued from the terrible abuse he suffered had his teachers been able to see him every day.
Today’s A level results are unprecedented, but not unexpected. On Friday, Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham said, ‘The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades.’ He went on to suggest that this might be, ‘justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered’.
On Sunday morning, Boris Johnson told us that schools were safe but, tellingly, did not rule out further closures. By Monday evening he had shut every school in England to most pupils. By then, of course, many primary schools had opened for just one day. Children mingled – as they do – and went home not to return. But after those bubbles were mixed, fewer grandparents may be willing to look after them.
Teachers and education support personnel must be prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccine.
England might be coming out of lockdown – some of it at least – but there is little cheer for students. This week’s government mandated ‘student travel window‘ will extinguish any vestiges of face-to-face teaching to allow students to Zoom out the term from parental homes. My son Barney is among the class of 2020, the group of students forking out high fees to be cooped up in their overpriced university accommodation, seeing few people apart from the flat mates they have been billeted with.
The decision to cancel next summer’s GCSE and A-Level exams in Wales has left teachers and pupils in uncharted waters. After Scotland scrapped its GCSE-equivalent National 5 exams in 2021 – opting for teacher assessments and coursework instead – England is under pressure to follow suit. But education secretary Gavin Williamson must stick to his guns and ensure that next year’s exams do go ahead.
Freshers across the country are being subjected to a psychological experiment that would never have been imagined, let alone sanctioned, before Covid-19 plunged the world into restrictive measures. Whether they will do any more than flatten curves or delay peaks is still not known but, either way, we are risking a mental health catastrophe among our young people.
‘My water bottle has leaked in my bag!’ The 11-year-old girl was distraught. It was her first week at secondary school. Her neatly titled exercise books – hitherto in pristine condition – were dripping wet; was she in trouble? What would become of her?
That happened in my wife’s class. She is also a teacher and has seen most things in her career. Flooded bags are a regular mishap. Usually, upset children are easily calmed when their teacher takes charge to put things right. But September 2020 has been a very different experience in schools. Socially distanced from the class, Stephanie was unable to offer any more than verbal instructions to her young pupil. Twenty minutes later the poor girl was still wiping out her bag.
The latest U-turn – this time on face masks in schools – comes less than a week before hundreds of thousands of teachers, including myself, return to the classroom. But is the announcement that secondary school pupils may have to wear masks as they make their way around schools really a smart idea? I’m not convinced.