10 months of horror for students has taken a heavy toll on us

Students in classroom
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In September 2020, the government decided that schools were safe to reopen.

I remember my first day back. It was an hour bus journey from home to college, surrounded by passengers, some of them maskless. Then, entering school with face masks, only to have to take them off again in the classrooms. Here, there was no form of social distancing at all. This wasn’t our fault. It was a complete dereliction of duty from the government.

Now, once again, we are learning from home and what our education will look like over the next few months is uncertain. But one thing is clear, the government’s multiple failures have caused this crisis. And it has had a massive impact on our education and wellbeing.

Coronavirus UK: a monumental catastrophe

In early 2020, the world started taking notice of this new coronavirus. Some countries shut their borders. Others ordered citizens to stay at home. But in the UK, life was the same. Buses were full. Underfunded and poorly-ventilated schools were rammed. And the wearing of face masks wasn’t even contemplated.

These early failures in proper science-led decision making have had a devastating effect on the country. They’ve had a monumental impact on the economy. And they have caused an everlasting educational disadvantage to the poorest students in our society.

The government dithered and delayed, before announcing the strict lockdown measures back in March 2020. Since then, they have consistently been behind the curve. This has caused the UK to have one of the worst death rates in Europe. But the effect on young people and their education has also been severe.

Early failures

It was late March. Pupils across the country were still expected to clamber onto busy buses. We had to head off into rammed classrooms with no social distancing at all; we had never even heard the phrase that has now painfully become our new normal. We were aware of the virus and the danger it posed. But we had no choice. School was a legal ‘must’, and with it came an abundance of anxiety and a wave of danger.

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Then, on 23 March the obvious was finally announced. At 8pm in an address to the nation, prime minister Boris Johnson said that schools, restaurants and all other non-essential businesses would be forced to close their doors for the foreseeable future; taking a hammer-blow to people’s livelihoods and children’s futures.

The first period of online learning was a real shake-up. The structure was different. Our older teachers were unaware of how to use the technology. We live in Shropshire, so the internet was poor at times. And in some areas, there was no mandated time for actual teaching online. But this was only the start of the continuous problems for students across the UK. These problems especially hit the poorest students in our society.

Myriad struggles for students

Myriad struggles were fiercely inflicted upon us: the lack of devices available to access this new virtual education; the often crammed housing many students live in meant there wasn’t a designated area to sit and work, and the lack of free school meals funding may have negatively affected their concentration levels. All of this led to a lack of classwork completed; lack of revision, and a lack of understanding, all of which would negatively impact our educational attainment.

The dithering and delaying also impacted on this. Johnson repeatedly U-turned over when students would go back to school, which stoked people’s anxiety and confused parents. But he then performed another one of the many U-turns his inept government has enacted over this bleak period. Exams were cancelled, and a now-notorious algorithm put in place to decide students’ results.

Then, the summer arrived.

A summer of discontent

Teachers were still trying to figure out how to perform and maximise their capaicty. It is a situation which has changed nearly every aspect of their careers. Over the summer break, the lack of government resources and requirements again led to children not receiving work or having resources for their human right to education.

And it got worse. We found out that that education secretary Gavin Williamson had not delivered on his vow to provide the promised number of laptops for the most disadvantaged students. This deepened the educational divide. And it allowed private schools to further overtake underfunded, understaffed and overworked state schools.

August came, the month when exam-year students across England nervously waited to pick up their results. But this year, the situation was different. Pupils’ futures were in the balance of something unfamiliar, something new. This turned results day into one of widespread protests and embarrassing government U-turns.

A rogue algorithm?

It was 13 August. The day had finally arrived. A-Level grades were ready to be opened by thousands of eager teens across the country. But the day also laid bare the pure discrimination and contempt the Tories have for working people and poor communities. The grades were awarded by a cruelly mutant algorithm. It was assembled by the Department for Education (DfE) and manufactured by Williamson. And this algorithm crushed the hopes, aspirations and dreams of the poorest students in our society.

It made sure that students from the richest areas of England, and those privately educated, got higher grades on average. Meanwhile, some pupils from the poorest areas and a swathe of state schools got considerably lower grades than the previous year’s averages. This essentially meant that pupils paid to get into university and college. It was a shocking, dehumanising approach.

Protests filled Downing Street and cities across the country. Students were standing up to the establishment and demanding justice. Social media went into a frenzy; the government panicked as the ‘exams fiasco’ gained mass attention. The unification of these students under the call for equality was unbreakable. This led to another government U-turn; the Ofqual head resigned, teacher assessed grades were introduced for every student. Williamson just about clung on.

The first leaves of autumn

September arrived. With it came a grave amount of danger for spreading the virus, alongside unpreparedness and cohorts of students with gaping holes in their knowledge. Months without face-to-face learning and a lack of government requirements had taken their toll.

Already, the students, teachers, unions and scientists knew that schools weren’t safe. They knew the risk of transmission was too high to contemplate. Yet despite this, and the sound recommendations of the National Education Union (NEU) and others, the government shamefully stuck to its plan for a normal opening of schools.

Travelling to school on public transport. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with students in a classroom all day. Transport back home again. Then mixing with the wider community. All this with an already alarming R-rate. None of this should have been happening. But yet again, the government favoured the economy and prioritising getting parents back to work. All during a pandemic.

Everyone inside schools – teachers, support staff and pupils – could tell this wasn’t going to end well.

It was never going to end well

In the run up to the Christmas holidays, cases were rising. More and more areas were put into stricter measures. The NHS was on the brink of collapse. Yet despite knowing this and the potential dangers of a new variant – Williamson still didn’t act. Instead, he threatened councils with legal proceedings if they took action to shut schools early for the Christmas break to stop the spread of the virus.

Christmas mixing came and went.  The country again waited for clarification. Were schools going to open? Would there be a new national lockdown? Would exams be cancelled?

Unions warned the government that reopening schools in January 2021 was dangerous. Staggered opening was announced for secondary schools. But the government pressed ahead with opening most primary schools on 4 January, claiming that it was safe to do so except in certain areas with high infection rates.

Lockdown three

Then, on the day primary schools were forced to open, the PM gave another address to the nation. He announced England was going back into a national lockdown. The government was closing schools until at least February half term. And it had cancelled exams for a second year. The relief was immense, knowing that we no longer had to risk our community’s lives to support the economy. Knowing that exams had finally been cancelled after almost a year of harsh disruption.

Then, after the relief subsided, we quickly realised that, yet again, there was no clarity from the government. It hadn’t announced what was replacing exams, how they’d be graded and when we’d know this vital information. This is because there had been no preparation at all. There was no plan B. The government had no communication with the unions and teaching staff. And it gave no consideration to students, especially the poorer students who they’d screwed over throughout the pandemic.

The future?

In terms of exams, there have been reports of the DfE conjuring up ‘mini-exams’ for the 2021 cohort. If this is true, teachers and students will see this as a U-turn on another promise. The stress is unbearable; the anxiety is off the charts and the knowledge for exams severely lacking in detail due to online learning. Make no mistake: I agree with the government’s U-turns because I do not believe schools are safe. But the constant suggestions, deliberations and glimmers of hope constantly suggested are demoralising.

I recently founded the group Young Socialists. Our education spokesperson says:

If the proposals from Ofqual of mini-exams go ahead, once again an air of uncertainty will return. The government’s continuation of U-turns has made it difficult for teachers and students alike. Young Socialists will continue to fight to ensure there is an equal and fair way to assess all pupils.

The government from now on must get its act together. It cannot re-open schools too quickly. It must constructively work with the unions and teachers. And it must take advice from students about our wishes and the way this crisis has impacted us. Schools can only open when it is extremely safe to do so. We cannot keep repeating these mistakes. It’s ripping families and communities apart.

But if the government continues with its plan, it must take one thing into consideration. Students will fight back. There will be protests. Social media will blow up and the government will be forced into another embarrassing U-turn. Me and Young Socialists will be at the forefront of the campaign against them.

Featured image via NeONBRAND – Unsplash 

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