A COVID-19 Safe Education: A Secondary School Students Thoughts
In the words of Shakespeare, “a plague o’ both your houses!” is what I say to government and opposition parties, for they have left both school staff and students in the line of fire. While England has gone into late national lockdown causing huge disruption to everyone’s lives, and all importantly their jobs, the way our children are being educated (until the age of 16) has largely been unchanged with children still (as of the 9th November) attending school full-time.
The reasoning for this, as the government and opposition parties are quick to reiterate, is that “children are safer in school” and “it is the best place for them”, and that the only alternative to the full-time education model is the March-style lockdown where children do not attend school at all (a requirement if the current situation remains as is). This disingenuous limiting of the argument pushed by our political class will lead many to continue to believe the idea that for both educational and safeguarding reasons keeping students in school is the best option, completely ignoring any alternatives.
Before detailing solutions to the public health crisis educators are facing, we need to look at the failures of the previous lockdown. Students faded off the systems put in place—with no motivation, students who would previously attend school regularly and work hard stopped working. Students had no teacher tutoring for the vast majority of it, with the Department for Education disallowing state-funded schools to teach online (unlike private schools) meaning all students at our state schools had homework-style tasks put together online and email support from teachers. Students had no in-person or any contact with support staff, producing a huge safeguarding risk for students needing mental health support or experiencing difficulty at home—as we saw dramatically increase during lockdown.
As a product of lockdown, much effort has gone into preparing teaching and school staff for another potential disruption, with innovative methods of teaching being developed and trained such as over-video conferencing technologies and hybrid learning, where some students call in online and others attend the in-person lesson. Much work, however, never happened. 7 months since the closure of schools in the world’s 5th richest country, we still have deprived students without access to the internet and online learning technologies. With not enough money being allocated to the scheme, schools have been forced to look into their own now-shallow pockets to provide laptops for students, money that for many schools is not there, or is coming from cuts to other vital areas and upgrades.
Going forward, COVID or not, it is not right that we are moving more and more services online and more and more education is happening online, creating exciting new educational experiences for students but leaving deprived students behind without easy access to these new possibilities. The technologically deprived only have access to them at libraries (of which are often the first services to be cut in deprived councils) or at the school itself. Providing every student access to the internet (as I wrote in my article for Worcestershire Transformed “Going Back To School: A Secondary Students Thoughts”) is vital for the education of the nation going forward and “Levelling up the Country” as a whole. This cost may even become cost-neutral, boosting the growing digital sector of our economy.
Having analysed the previous lockdown’s issues now, it is possible to look at the solutions to the public health crisis. The current method where schools are fully open with some COVID prevention methods in the form of the all-magic “bubbles” is the current option, but the science does not add up. According to the 30th October Coronavirus Infections Survey pilot, the rate of students in years 7-11 increased 50 times, and around 2% of all secondary school students have the virus—which, despite the seemingly-low percentage, is a vast amount of the student population and will cause considerable spread. People will then move on to argue that these students aren’t vulnerable, but to rely on this is to ignore that people live with other people potentially classed as vulnerable and younger people may themselves have medical conditions making themselves vulnerable. The government’s plan is reckless and risks destroying all the progress we made over the first lockdown, and the cost we took to livelihoods would be for nothing.
The other method which has been used in the UK is a March-style lockdown where schools completely shut. Currently, I do not believe the requirement is there to do so—as I have detailed above, this method has multiple issues surrounding safeguarding and students just dropping out of education without the threat of ramifications. No form of the school’s enforcement system is currently in place, so their form of motivation—whether it is the right way we should motivate students or not—no longer exists. It is, however, possible to build on this, creating a middle-of-the-road solution where we mix in-person and online teaching, all socially distanced—previously an impossible task with all students in school.
The COVID-safe school week should include a singular day where it is mandatory students come into school for academic and vital pastoral support. This ensures that students have a form of motivation for working at home with actual teachers giving positive and negative sanctions for working and not working to ensure students stay relatively on track with progress. It ensures that students can receive mental health support similar to how they would during a normal education period, and it ensures that students have an adult that is not a member of their household to speak to about issues that (under the last lockdown) would stay bottled up, with terrible ramifications for mental health. Having this one day a week in-person contact would get students out of their house and for some (albeit small) length of time away from the arguments that may have formed (as is only natural when people are spending every hour of every day together) while still allowing for social distancing and COVID safety measures, due to the smaller number of students within the school—similar to what many schools trialed at the end of the last national school lockdown. This model could take place with all secondary school students and, with however greater difficulty (especially with younger students), primary students.
We have no need for exams to exist—so they shouldn’t. While I can very much see the potential to read this as “GCSE student doesn’t want to do GCSEs!! Shock as turkeys vote against Christmas!”, this is very much a conflicted area among students when speaking seriously about the need for exams. Many have seen the classist algorithm applied to the class of 2020 as the only example of how an examination system without a final exam would work. It is now widely accepted that the 2020 results did not do well, but this is not due to inherent problems with the system of teacher-assessed grades. This is due to inherent issues with the government’s—and their private school friends’—strategy that showed the real lack of representation of people from deprived communities in the rooms where these decisions are made. In one of the biggest moves the DfE made this year, nobody appeared to be concerned about how the algorithm used to grade students was designed so that students from poor areas got downgraded grades. There is no reason why we can not use evidence from “little and often” examinations and students’ work in class to assess a student. There is no need for a classist algorithm instead of using only teachers’ assessments (with evidence) and oversight by the exam boards and OFQUAL. A single stressful day in a young person’s life will not be in any way representative of this student’s knowledge and ability. It is wrong.
These reasons apply even more during the COVID crisis where up and down the country, and even within Worcestershire, schools are closing for self-isolation, forcing students to learn from home. The government constantly reiterates that students learn better inside school. Using their own logic, how is it fair that these students now have to take the same test everyone else has, with the same grade boundaries? The government’s ideology is hypocrisy after hypocrisy in every region it touches, and it is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in their current mess of educational policy. There is no way to examine students with a final exam fairly during the current crisis. England must follow in line with Scotland and Wales and the government to stop this stupid obsession with exams and start being concerned about students’ progress and skills.
This government needs to act urgently to stop the spread of coronavirus to staff and students, I can make no clearer point than this. They are not doing enough. We are being failed.