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School life: Not exactly zooming

19 June 2020

Dennis Richards reflects on the challenges and inequalities of school life today

istock

IT IS difficult to believe, even now. On 13 March, my French A-level students are three weeks away from their Easter holidays. Their end-of-lesson, end-of-the-week conversation moves seamlessly into a discussion about the importance of the Easter holidays for revision. One bright spark tells us that the holidays will also be vital for her to finalise the arrangements for her prom dress.

We move on to a debate about the all-important “cool” choice for a post-exam holiday — Ibiza and Magaluf are so “old hat”. Interrailling is back. Journeys to all corners of Europe and the wider world are at an advanced stage of planning.

Within a week, it’s all gone. This year’s Upper Sixth are no more. Their exams and celebrations are summarily cancelled, and their plans are in tatters.

For the first month of lockdown, A-level staff are in meetings to interpret a bewildering series of guidelines from the Department for Education (DfE) and the exams regulator Ofqual about how we are to make an assessment of each student’s A-level grade. When I say meetings, of course, I am referring to online meetings.

At first, it’s chaos. Our department head has a young family, and, behind him, children’s books are much in evidence, including Not Now, Bernard about a boy who cannot get his parents’ attention. Others have constructed an impressive “shelfie” and have a row of academic volumes on view in the background. Tilt your head downwards to ensure that fellow-Zoomers are not looking up your nose, and we’re off. In our first session, we all talk too much. We’re teachers.

At the outset of the process, there are soothing noises that this year’s A-level grades will be based on “mock” exams, coursework, teacher assessment, and homework. There is the standard commendation of teachers’ professionalism and integrity. At the same time, the powers-that-be seem to forget that teachers also love their students to bits, and genuinely fight for them all the way. “Jack the lad” will surely buckle down and pull it out of the fire at the last moment, even though we haven’t seen him since January. And dear old Tom, who has done every single assignment, and never missed a lesson — he even came in on a “snow day” — surely deserves an A*.

In any case, they’ve all had such a rough deal as a year group, let’s give them all the benefit of the doubt. Plus the fact that they are bound to be generous at our competitor school up the road.

The penny drops at the DfE. Their solution to the conundrum is ruthless. All schools’ A-level predictions for the summer of 2020 must be in line with their results over the past two to three years. The proportion of A* grades you give in 2020 will be the same, or very close to the norm, for your school.

The final clincher is the demand for schools to rank the students in a given group in order. Be over-generous, and the exam boards will demote students all down the list. The lowest ranked A* is demoted to an A grade, the lowest A grade drops to B, and so on. It’s foolproof.

This year’s grades are now certain to be in line with last year’s. But what if you had an exceptional group compared with last year? Tough. And if vice-versa? Rejoice. The level of fairness and accuracy will be well below normal, but the overall results will not be devalued. The same process will be followed for the GCSE results.

In the case of other year groups, experience has clearly been mixed. From the outset, schools have worried about a “level playing-field”. How is it possible to prevent children in difficult circumstances at home from being further disadvantaged — in homes where there is no access to broadband, for example? As a result, it would appear that approximately 60 per cent of privately educated students have been following regular lessons online. In the state sector, it falls to 25 per cent.

Similarly mixed views have emerged in relation to online face-to-face teaching. Some schools are taking a strict safeguarding stance and banned it outright; others have allowed it for Year 12 (aged 16 to 17), and introduced obvious safeguards. Insisting that a parent must be in close proximity seems to do the trick. In our case, it is not unknown for parents to hover in the background: not to check up, but in the hope that they can get involved.

Primary schools have been “sent over the top” first in terms of easing the lockdown. As governors at Grove Road Primary School, in Harrogate, a hub school for the area, we have unanimously backed the decision of the head teacher, Chris Parkhouse, to ease the lockdown in stages.

His interim report says: “We’ve four bubble groups set up for key workers/vulnerable children, with another two in preparation. Year 6 will be joining us for two days a week per group. Parents understand an approach which is staged and safe for all.” So far, so good.

After the initial chaos in the department Zoom meetings, we are all more relaxed: one of our number appears to be in a deckchair in the garden, with what looks suspiciously like Pimms. Only one colleague is still resistant: the department dinosaur. In normal circumstances, he would have opted out. He says that he does not understand the technology. He’s late every week. “Which button do I press?” “Can you hear me?” he shouts on a regular basis. Eventually, our hostess cannot resist. “Not now, Bernard”, she snaps, providing much needed hilarity all round.

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