This year’s GCSE year have had six months of homeschooling and now, weeks after going back to school, face mocks which they are being told could be used in their overall grade for the year. No wonder they are extremely anxious.
How can it be right to put more pressure on this year’s A Level and GCSE years, who have gone through months of homeschooling, followed by back to school assessments and now mocks? Yet, this week I received an email from my daughter’s secondary school, warning that the mocks would be taken as much as possible as the real thing due to worries that the real thing might not take place. I had in fact written to my MP as soon as I heard the Government were suggesting more rigorous mocks as a result of worries over this scenario. He said he did not know of any intention to make the mocks harder and mentioned the catch-up tutoring money, which apparently won’t kick in until after the mocks in any event.
Daughter three’s school is not just emphasising that the mocks should be taken as the real thing, but are going to throw in a results ceremony in January to make the experience really authentic. The mocks begin this month. My daughter has spent half term glued to Twitter, hoping that schools will be closed and the mocks cancelled or at least delayed. She froze in the back to school assessments and her grades suffered. After months of self-teaching – while grieving for her sister – her confidence was at rock bottom. In what world is it a good idea to put more pressure on young people like her and put them into what is, to all intents and purposes, the equivalent of a major exam when they have been back mere weeks [and many have had to isolate since going back] and missed a lot of the syllabus? My daughter has been off school since February half term when her sister died. She will only start bereavement counselling – by phone – this week.
It’s all very well to talk about going back to school and how it improves children’s mental health, but does it really? I think the education system as currently configured has a large role to play in children’s lack of mental well being. The pressure schools are encouraged to put on kids from year 7 on over the GCSEs is ridiculous. The letters we get sent every time they are off sick telling us that their percentages will go down X amount if they don’t drag themselves into the school with a temperature are a case in point. People argue that some kids need this kind of pressure to avoid coasting, but the trouble is there are many different kinds of kids and for those who are really conscientious, who theoretically enjoy learning [or did until they got to secondary school], the message sent is counterproductive. It makes school seem like a treadmill of unrelenting pressure. It kills their love of learning.
Parents evenings are another case in point. It’s all about targets and charts and figures, not about people. I’m not against the odd target, but the target should not be the main thing. I’ve lost count of the parents’ evenings I’ve been to in the last years. Daughter one used to adopt a wholly self-flagellating approach to the eternal opening question of the teacher: “How do you think you’ve been doing?” “Well, I think I could do better at x…” she would say, even though she was doing tremendously well at everything. She was never able to celebrate that success; she could always ‘do better’. An A is not enough. It has to be an A* or, in GCSE-speak, a 9. If you are predicted all 9s, there is nowhere to go from there, but down. That kind of pressure sets kids up to think they are a failure even before they have begun. Daughter one was hugely bright and intelligent and read around every subject that interested her. She would buy philosophy books from charity shops and had a book in her pocket on every occasion. She should have been a natural for university and yet she wasn’t sure about going. And the reason she wasn’t sure was because of the relentlessness of school. She took a gap year to recover and worked in a cafe.
I find myself therefore with very mixed emotions about schools not being included in the lockdown. Going back to school in September was really important for my kids. It gave them a structure that they needed. It gave them some sort of normality, but both teenagers struggled with panic attacks over the back to school assessments. They got through that, but I am not at all convinced that schools are safe places to be Covid-wise, particularly secondary schools. Daughter two’s bubble is over 150 people big. When she comes out of school, most kids are not wearing masks and they are not social distancing [crowds of them gather outside local shops] before getting onto public transport, where, presumably, they put a mask on. Yet, the experience of online schooling was so poor that I don’t want them to return to that. They need every bit of teaching they can get. It was the teaching that I feel was missing from online schooling. Only son had lots of stuff set for him – lots of endless links, but if he didn’t know how to do some bit of maths I had to teach him it.
Of course, they can resit a year, but neither of the teenagers wants to do that. “Why is the world set up to encourage people towards jobs that are about selfishness and not towards jobs that are about looking after each other?” asked daughter three the other day. “Why can’t we just be kind to each other?”
It may sound idealistic, but we need some sort of positive vision after all of this. The more we live in it, the more we can see that the competitive, dog eat dog system is making us all ill.