One of the many consequences of the coronavirus pandemic has been the cancellation of all GCSE and A level exams for school children. The task of deciding what grades should be given is nightmarish: an ad hoc scramble for previous work and mock assessments, further complicated by many staff being unable to leave their homes. Worse still are the implications for year 11s who, after studying for five years, are sure to feel a sense of anti-climax, sitting in lockdown instead of the exam hall. One pupil, Yasmin Hussein, wrote in the Guardian, “I believed that the GCSE exam hall was a level playing field for all abilities, races and genders… Yet we were stripped of this opportunity.”
Of course, the government were clearly forced to make this unpopular decision. Nevertheless, Yasmin’s pain is understandable — GCSEs are a coming-of-age moment for British teenagers — and it is regrettable that so many will not get the chance to test their mettle after years of hard work. Perspective tells us that a year’s GCSE exams are a sad but necessary sacrifice to protect the lives of the truly vulnerable in British society. Indeed, GCSE grades for current year 11s are likely to be graded generously.
We should be far more concerned for our current year 10s, who now face an interminable amount of time away from school. Teachers are tasked with compressing lengthy GCSE courses, judging which content can and cannot be left out, all the while not knowing how many months our pupils will have left when we finally return. Pupils across different schools will no doubt have radically different levels of provision in this time. My own, Michaela Community School in Brent, has been able to set up comprehensive online resources, including trackable revision websites, Google classroom, online lessons via Zoom, and e-tutoring. Provisions for learning will vary greatly across schools.
What’s more, it is certain that the poorest children will carry the heaviest burden, and we will see an even larger gap between pupils based on their family income. Let’s contrast the learning environment of an average, privately educated child with one from the impoverished inner-city. At home, the more privileged child will have a desk to work on and plenty of books to read. Mum and Dad will understandably have their anxieties about the crisis, but are nevertheless able to do their white-collar work remotely. They have savings, regardless, and this security creates a relaxed environment where they can use their university education to assist their child with work. Many private tutors have quickly transitioned to e-tutoring, and if the child has boarded, they will be well-versed in independent study such that long stretches of essay-planning will likely be the norm.
The fare of the impoverished inner-city child is starkly different. Smaller flats and larger families will mean little available workspace, with siblings frequently having to divide up time to access online resources. Mum and Dad, or perhaps just Mum, is having a much tougher time. She’s unable to travel to her non-essential workplace, and must now see to the education of four children of different ages and needs, rocking the youngest to sleep while dragging the eldest back from breaking quarantine. School provides the disadvantaged children of this country with at least a basic order and sequence to the day. Without this structure, this bare essential, they cannot help but fall further and further behind their more privileged peers.
It may seem that I’m describing an unrealistic extreme, and certainly there is much grey area in between the most disadvantaged and the 6.5 per cent of British children who attend fee-charging schools. But such homes do exist, and while this long break isn’t optimal for any child, the poorer the child the more of these limiting factors will be present. I’m not attacking private education, nor am I saying schools should be reopened urgently. In unprecedented times, we should exercise caution. But the longer this crisis persists, the greater the impact on Britain’s poorest children.