Year 11 student: 'We're guinea pigs for the population'

How do young people feel about being back in school en masse? Two GCSE students talk about leading the way out of lockdown

Annabelle Whittle and Jack Bracegirdle

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Monday 8 March was like my first day of school again: neat uniform, crying parents, lining up outside the classroom, and nobody actually knowing what the rules are. 

I have been at my school for more than four years, but with new one-way systems, masks, bubbles, and now online learning, it feels almost unrecognisable. This place of safety has turned into one I fear. We are still children, yet now we are also guinea pigs for the whole population. 

I have many worries about being in school. Some of the rules we must now follow, such as social distancing, have proved impossible in small classrooms packed with 30 students. The government may wish to believe that we do not get up and talk in class, but as children we always will – and in these times that could be dangerous (even more than swinging on our chairs). 

Masks are advised in lessons until Easter. It is a step in the right direction if we cannot maintain distance. But, unfortunately, I can see this only as another weapon of mass distraction, as it has become in the corridors. 

Frequent testing has begun, also a good step, but I feel that uptake will fizzle out after a few weeks as it becomes another joke or arduous task that students are underprepared for – and, frankly, scared by. 

'Children should not have to lead the way out of lockdown'

This is not to say that we are lawless apes with no discipline: we are GCSE students, but classrooms will never be the ideal place to have stringent rules on talking and distance. And children should not have to lead the way out of lockdown: we clearly do not have the best idea of safety (see: swinging on chairs).

Speaking of GCSEs, we have no true idea, beyond vague phrases like “teacher-assessed” and “optional mini-exams”, to tell us how our futures will be formed. Every lesson feels like a secret scramble to set up a complex television: one that will spit out our grades. 

We grapple frantically with the mess of wires hiding behind the sleek (albeit blank) screen, but the instruction manual has nothing concrete to tell us. And, in the meantime, we must go on working as if we have no television to worry about at all. 

It feels like, as students, it is our responsibility to fix this, to make our own system. The spectre of last year’s fiasco looms. Even if we are awarded fair grades, can the machine snatch them from us for the sake of quotas? Who will be trusted to evaluate the worth of four years of hard work? The concrete nature of exams was terrifying, but secure; this unknown is 1,000 times worse.

'We are not made for isolation'

All this said, there are obvious positives to being back. I have missed my friends (and teachers) intensely over the last year – Instagram chat, with the occasional fleeting glimpse of a teacher’s face onscreen, is no substitute. We are not made for isolation, and children learn by social connection. 

I can wave at my friends in the corridors again, stick my actual hand up in class instead of an emoji (although I miss chat boxes, where contributing causes far less anxiety), and I don’t have to stare at a screen for 12 hours a day (did I mention Instagram?). Heaven forbid, I could even swing on a chair if I wanted to. 

However, these benefits seem pale and feeble, compared with the virus currently ravaging the world, which we have been thrown straight back into.

It has been undeniably strange to go back to a place that I know so well and feel like it is unsafe for us to be there. But, for most of us, school is a place where we feel we have friends, where we can escape our parents and be something separate from home. 

At the end of the day, we are kids. We just want to learn and be safe – we do not deserve to be political and social cannon fodder. 

In a world where death feels like it lingers on every door handle, I cannot help but think that maybe school is more dangerous than the education secretary would like to believe.

Annabelle Whittle is a Year 11 pupil at Farlingaye High School, in Suffolk

An escape from the mental prison we've been stuck in

For me and millions of other secondary school pupils, this last Monday was our first taste of normality in nearly three months – our first piece of clarity since we returned to schools last September. 

It was a brief but satisfying escape from the disarray and confusion of the outside world, the mental prison we’ve been stuck in for 12 months. With no exams, months of valuable learning missed and a severe lack of proper social interaction, the last few months have been an unbreakable cycle – we’ve been trapped inside the same four walls, longing to go back. 

When the announcement came that we were to be back in school on 8 March, I was excited about breaking this lamentable limbo we’ve been stuck in. 

But now we’re looking to the future, and how we’re going to be awarded grades. I do feel uncertain about what will happen next, but I commend my school for putting our minds at rest. I hope other students across the country have had similar experiences. 

This past week will have been a delight for some and a wake-up call for others, but I would like to think that most students will embrace this small piece of normality in such unfamiliar territory. 

I would definitely say that the return to school has been beneficial to me. I’ve enjoyed getting back into the regular swing of things, and getting the chance to socialise again with my friends (with whatever social skills I can remember). 

I look forward to the rest of the school year – however long that may be – and sincerely hope that we will all be back to normality as soon as possible.

Jack Bracegirdle is a Year 11 pupil at Penketh High School, in Warrington

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Annabelle Whittle and Jack Bracegirdle

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