'The lack of consideration for Year 11 is staggering'

Schools have been subjected to a zigzag of indecision over exams – and it's Year 11 who are suffering, says Sarah Ledger
5th January 2021, 12:24pm
Sarah Ledger


'The lack of consideration for Year 11 is staggering'

Coronavirus School Closures: What About Year 11 Students Facing Gcses?

I'm at the point where I barely know what to say. The lack of foresight, consideration or understanding about what our Year 11 students need is staggering. 

Vaguely announcing that not all exams will be going ahead as normal is just not good enough. 

Year 11 is the heart of every secondary school, and it's a difficult enough year without a pandemic. Every January, as head of Year 11, I gear up for the final two terms. 

The climb from lacklustre mocks to shining GCSE results is always steep. I have to know exactly who is doing well, who is struggling and who is coasting towards a set of fives and sixes when they should be leaving with a clutch of eights. 

There is usually - and forgive me for the gender stereotyping, but data sometimes draws bold lines - a group of daft lads and a group of anxious girls that I'm worried about. Perhaps anxiety in boys presents as daftness and vice versa. It doesn't really matter: I just want them to able to do their best. 

Coronavirus: Confusion over GCSE exams

Leading Year 11 is a balancing act between challenge and support. By the time some students get to Year 11, they've had enough; they've been in school since they were four years old and they've been subjected to rules and boundaries they quite often feel they've outgrown. But it's the last mile of the marathon, and that's why it's so important that they don't give up. 

In March 2020, the marathon was cancelled. We sent our shellshocked Year 11s home. If ever I needed evidence that education matters to kids, I just had to read my emails: they wanted to prove themselves, they wanted agency, they wanted to know if it was too late to do better.

We had a summer overshadowed by algorithms, centre-assessed grades and U-turns. I'm not going over the rights and wrongs again - it's done. The least I can do is employ that most overused of 2020 clichés and say that it was unprecedented. If poor decisions were made, then the charitable view would be that the government was in uncharted waters. 

We're now nine months down the line - the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

While all the fuss in the summer was about Year 11, Year 10 were working online, at home. Unlike last year's students, this year's Year 11 have missed out on time in the classroom. Access for some has been patchy, and there is no doubt that momentum has been lost. 

At my school, we've been incredibly lucky - our Year 11 bubble hasn't been sent home - but some individuals have had to self-isolate three times. Some have been very unwell; some have been living with relatives who are fearful and shielding or who have lost income; some have lost family members. If there was ever a year group who need nurture, access to good teaching and wise decisions, it's this one.

Chaotic, ill-timed decisions

And yet, poor decisions - chaotic, ill-timed decisions - continue to be made. One minute the Department for Education is threatening court action over schools' decisions to close, the next it's shutting down secondary schools until 11 January…or 18 January…or "indefinitely"

When I started writing this column, the DfE had refused to allow Cumbrian primary schools to shut, despite local infection rates higher than London's. And now, once again, before the pixels have dried on the screen, there's been, well, less of a U-turn, more a wild, skewed zigzag of indecision - and the whole bloody shebang has been shut down.

Meanwhile, our Year 11s are suffering. Until 17 December, they were expecting to attend school as usual this Monday. But the plan was changed the day before they broke up. They've been told consistently to expect their exams in the summer as usual, but now we're told not all exams can go ahead, that Ofqual and Gavin Williamson - Boris has got his best man on it - will work on an alternative. 

There's clearly been no contingency, no strategic planning, no Plan B. Schools do this stuff all the time. There's even a Plan B in case it rains on sports day - let alone the nationwide academic assessment of half a million 16-year-olds. 

Teachers aren't stupid; we could have held more than one idea in our heads at a time. We could have prepared for external exams in the sports hall - or the sports hall and two substantial marquees - while being aware there might have to be alternative methods of assessment. Somewhere midway between an inhuman computer-generated grading system and unmoderated teacher assessment would be nice. I'm not holding my breath.

If our Year 11s are to keep going, they must have faith and believe that education matters. 

I'm saying it again: Year 11 is hard enough without this nonsense. Our students need to know what might happen in the summer, they need to be reassured that they'll be assessed fairly. Above all, they need to know that the DfE believes that education matters enough for them to plan ahead. 

In the meantime, those of us steering Year 11 through these tricky times need to breathe. We need to remain positive and confident on their behalf, delivering lessons in whatever way best meets their needs. It's the very least they deserve.

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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