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Education: the Covid generation

25 September 2020

What will this year’s students advise the young people who follow them, Dennis Richards wonders


Students in Paco de Arcos, near Lisbon, at the start of the academic year last week

Students in Paco de Arcos, near Lisbon, at the start of the academic year last week

THE whole education sector is enduring a traumatic start to the new academic year. In both schools and universities, we have seen the emergence of what will inevitably come to be known as the Covid generation.

Roughly speaking, if you are aged between 16 and 24, your student experience will be radically different from that of your predecessors — and for the foreseeable future.

In universities, the problems are well documented. You could argue that the way in which higher education is structured is no longer appropriate, and Covid will accelerate its demise.

For the moment, there is a bizarre paradox. By decimating opportunities for employment, Covid actually appears to have strengthened demand for university places rather than reversed it. But for how long? Is the experience of university that the Covid generation is about to embark on worth the money?

Research suggests that, first and foremost, students seek courses and institutions that are academically credible. Next, employability factors associated with particular degrees are also taken into account. It would appear, however, that a “life experience” is an overriding factor, often as a result of peer-group influence.

Annie G. is a classic example of the Blairite vision that half of the nation’s 18-year-old cohort would, in the fullness of time, be in higher education. Her choice is fashion and marketing at a non-Russell Group university: the sort of degree to give academic purists apoplexy. For the moment, as for so many of the younger generation, she has been able to support herself through part-time employment since she was 16; in her case, in the flourishing skin-care industry.

She has not seen a lecturer since March, and has just been told that, in her final year, her teaching will be online only, contained in just two days a week. Really? For £9250 a year? The Annies of this world will advise the next generation of students whether university is worth it.

Some students have faced overwhelming difficulties when choosing a course. In anything related to the performing arts, for example, it is difficult to see how effective teaching can take place, or any employment be promised.

Languages is another area of study that has had to confront an almost impossible impasse. Languages degrees typically require students to spend a year abroad for the third year of a four-year course. No one could possibly question the value of such an experience, but the problems for some have been nigh on insurmountable.

paThe French Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, visiting a class in Chateauroux, central France, earlier this month

Olivia S. secured a place as an assistant in a school in St Étienne. It is now in a Covid “Red” zone. Neither her university nor the French school will accept insurance responsibilities for her.

The university has decreed that she will be required “to do her year abroad online”. It will still form part of her degree, and will include lectures, documentaries, and conversations with French nationals. All she is expected to do is to sit at home in the north of England.

In fact, she has just secured a job as an au pair in the south of France at her own risk. She also has to fulfil her university requirements by following the online course. Everyone’s a winner, or so she says.

Ruby K. is doing bio-chemistry and French. She also has had her plans for a year abroad thrown into disarray. Instead of an exciting paid research-lab placement in Lyon, she will now complete her degree at the end of this year.

Or will she? The university still requires her to go to Lyon in September 2021. And she will: there is a recurring theme of students’ inventively and determinedly finding a way through.


IN SCHOOLS, meanwhile, the familiar routine of the first September training day was severely disrupted. In normal circumstances, the senior leadership team sits at the front of the main hall facing the rest of the staff. Now, as with a recalcitrant Year 11, the front rows are unoccupied, and the staff are massed together on the back rows.

The highlight every year is the head’s welcome for new colleagues. They are individually invited to stand. It is excruciatingly embarrassing for them, but great fun for the rest of us. This year, the atmosphere is tense, and we are dispersed around the room.

We try to be positive. There is optimism that parents will, perhaps, realise that running a secondary school is a fiendishly complex business.

For the moment, we have kept our messaging simple. In broad terms, either the pupils move around school, or the teachers do. Pre-Covid, the vast majority of schools opted for the former. Change to the latter? It makes some sense; but say goodbye to music, science experiments, food and nutrition, dance — all the subjects that need a different space or specialist equipment.

And streaming? For heaven’s sake, don’t tell the maths department that they will be teaching mixed-ability classes.

We start the year with celebration, via Bad Poetry Day. Someone has unearthed a gem in the Times Diary:

As you slide down the banister of life,
Slide with joy and not dismay,
And I hope sincerely for your sake,
The splinters are facing the other way.


Dennis Richards is a former head teacher of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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