Covid-19 is not an equal opportunities virus. From the start of the pandemic, we knew that it posed little serious threat to the young. Yet children were locked down just like everyone else. With schools closed they missed out on education, extra-curricular activities, friendships and rites of passage. Exams have been cancelled twice.
Now, just as life slowly begins to return to normal, thousands of teenagers find themselves out of school and with nothing to do once more. For pupils in Years 11 and 13, this week is not just a half-term break but the end of their school days entirely. With GCSE and A-level exams replaced by teacher assessment and in-class tests, their results have already been determined. What was once "study leave" is now just "leave".
Relentless exam cramming can be soul-destroying. But unfortunately, in the absence of exams, our entire educational edifice seems to crumble. Schools don't know what to do with pupils – and so send them home.
Exams have been cancelled because of politics, not epidemiology. There is no scientific justification for preventing youngsters from sitting separately in exam halls when they can mingle freely in parks and shops. And cancelling exams has been a headache for teachers who have faced an increased workload as well as the disgruntlement of parents aware that grades are being awarded on a far more subjective basis. It was the teachers' unions that petitioned for the cancellations as part of their mission to keep schools from returning to normal.
Evidence of the devastating impact closing schools had on children's education and social development began to emerge as early as spring last year. It rapidly became clear that, even for families with ready access to laptops and WiFi, online teaching was a poor substitute for time in the classroom. What has made the reluctance of the teaching unions to get schools back to normal so utterly reprehensible is the fact that we know it is the most disadvantaged children who have suffered most of all.
In response, the Government has promised catch-up measures. An extra year of sixth form for pupils unable to complete A-level courses has reportedly been considered, as has lengthening the school day by half an hour – though the Government now appears to be backing away from this idea. One union leader was quick to say that "quality of teaching is more important than quantity".
Sadly, for pupils whose education came to an abrupt end this week after having only returned to the classroom two-and-a-half months ago, this may be all hot air. Plenty of schools will be unable to manage the vast logistical challenge of allowing this year's A-level candidates to repeat a year. Many young people will, understandably, want to get on with their lives, even if they do leave school armed only with teacher-assessed grades that may not reflect their true potential.
To make matters worse, in previous years, teenagers might have spent a long summer break travelling abroad with friends, completing the Duke of Edinburgh's scheme, or doing an internship. Few of these options will be available to them this year. It is not just schools that have let youngsters down but adult society more broadly.
Let's hope school leavers cram as much fun as possible into the next few months. It's the least they deserve.
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