“Keep focused on why we are here: your GCSEs.”
GCSEs have been in place every year since 1988, set up during Margaret Thatcher’s administration. They are the key assessment point at the end of five years of secondary school.
“You’re misbehaving?” How will this impact your GCSEs?”
Unlike A-Levels or degrees, they are the qualification that all teenagers take that will be on every CV.
“You didn’t do your revision homework? If you muck up these than this could ruin your chances at A-Level, your choice of university, your job prospects.”
These are the mantras the class of 2020 — students that were due to take their GCSEs this May and June — have heard for the last few years in schools up and down the country. All is built up to prepare for a feeling of success in that defining moment in August where results are opened.
At 6.45 am on Wednesday I arrived in school to finish revision resources for students to take home and then created a plan to teach in a single lesson what is usually taught in one month. They’ll need to hear about the content from me first, then they can consolidate learning at home. The lesson was in full flow by 10am. “Sir, what was the IRA?” No time to go into that, sorry. The class, that I had taught since year 9, had not contemplated this could be our last lesson together. I was aware of the real possibility it would be but acted as if there would be at least a few more before exams. There were no goodbyes. Just orders from me and nodding from them that they needed to revise.
At 2pm, as I was printing resources by a classroom for students that weren’t in to be sent home, I saw news about schools shutting down in Scotland and Wales. I could see my colleague was going through an exam paper and heard the enthusiastic answers of students. They were ready. After days of denial, I began to accept that their confidence was likely to soon become redundant. Staff started to know too, smiling with students as they went to their final session of the day. A year 11 student that had been a particular challenge all year, observed: “They are only being nice to us because we are about to die.”
The year 7s were the most confused, understandably. “Are we going to go into lock down?” “How long is school closing for?” Teachers are meant to provide certain answers to questions. Or at least make up plausible ones. Usually kids are older when they realise adults don’t know everything. I had nothing to give. These year 7s are growing up quick. But they will adjust, they’ll look back fondly about this come 4 years’ time when they sit their GCSEs.
I got an email at 4pm from a student asking for catch up work from the lesson she missed. She was aiming for a 9, the top GCSE grade. One hour later, as Gavin Williamson stood up to address pack and Boris Johnson addressed the press pack, my reply with resources became irrelevant. GCSEs aren’t going ahead this May and June. School’s out. It’s cancelled.
The rite of passage has been taken away for the class of 2020. One of my students I bumped into in the corridor the following day, joked “We’ll be a history question on future exam papers: What were the academic year that didn’t do GCSEs?” They will get some results, but it won’t be in the authentic way cohorts before them and no doubt after them will receive them. Students will have a rough idea what they are going to get. For them, there will be no sweaty, tingling fingers and racing hearts holding a letter containing information which they know close to nothing about. On Thursday morning, the Headteacher confirmed: “This will be there last day at school.” No special leaving events for them. Prom is off.
According to Sima Rana, headteacher of Westminster Academy Paddington: “Telling students now that there are no exams stops their whole purpose in learning”. Perhaps this is the nub of the issue. The rug is pulled from beneath their feet and with that the purpose of school and the meaning of their education.
For five years, secondary schools funnel kids down the pressure point of May/June of their Year 11 year. This is where they get their raison d’être from. I read of some imploring teachers to tell students: “It wasn’t just about the GCSE qualifications, it was the learning”. Such pleas ring hollow when arising in a vacuum. You can’t magic up a new meaning of education for students in 24 hours when the main thing they hear about day in day out is GCSEs.
Perhaps if there is any consolation from this crushing blow to the education system, it might encourage schools, and thus their students, to see school about being about more than exam qualifications. That education is sacred and worthwhile for its own sake. That a broad education is preferable on so many levels to a narrow, exam driven one. It’s something. But I doubt it will offer much comfort to the class of 2020.