Keep Year 11s in school? They need to run free

Ofsted thinks GCSE students should remain in school – but Tabitha McIntosh says they desperately need a long summer

Tabitha McIntosh

GCSEs 2021: 'Ofsted is wrong - Year 11s need a long summer'

Right now, all along the East Coast of the United States of America, trillions of cicadas from the ominously named Brood X are waking from their 17-year suspended animation, digging their way to the surface of the earth, and erupting into the sunlight. 

For four to six weeks, the female cicadas will be drawn to males with the loudest cries, and so the hills and valleys of the nation, from upstate New York to the deepest part of the Deep South, will echo with their sonorous love. Until, after all the frantic mating, they will deposit their eggs and die.

If Britain’s thought leaders, catch-up alarmists and parenting message boards are to be believed, this is the fate that awaits the Year 11 class of 2021

Released from their schools after not-sitting their not-GCSEs, newly liberated from their family homes as lockdown eases, the nation’s youth will emerge, cicada-style, into a hellscape of anti-social crime and learning loss. And they will have one hundred days of summer in which to do so – at least 10 weeks more than the insects of Brood X.

GCSEs 2021: Why Year 11 deserve their rite of passage

Shutting the stable door long after the cicadas have bolted, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, bemused the teaching profession last week with an announcement that our Brood XI Year 11s are expected to be in school until the end of July

“We will want to know,” she said, “how schools are using the remainder of the summer term for these year groups.” 

Oh, Ms Spielman. We are using the remainder of the term to mark their assessments, remember them fondly and follow their future careers with interest.

I’m not worried about Brood XI. Quite the opposite. I hope they burst into the daylight and horrify the adults with their noisy celebration of temporary freedom just as much as Brood X.

They deserve these one hundred days of summer – more, perhaps, than any group of British teenagers has ever deserved anything. 

The weeks that stretch out after GCSEs have always been the longest stretch of unstructured time gifted to British young people. That summer is a rite of passage – an explosion from childhood into an incipient version of adulthood. And, for this year’s Year 11, it’s all the more crucial because they’ve been locked inside for over a year.

The joy of doing not very much

What, ask assorted members of the worrying class, will they do with all that time? If they are anything like every generation that came before them, they will do something that they will remember with odd intensity for the rest of their lives. 

What they actually do won’t necessarily be much, and they won’t necessarily remember it, for good reasons. They may, as one of my friends did, work on a parent’s landscape gardening site for weeks, their overriding memories being quiet resentment, an appreciation of the value of work and tips for how to avoid the four most commonly occurring types of dog poo. 

They may go to music festivals. They may be allowed to travel with friends for the first time. They may lie in the garden all summer reading book after book that they’ll never be examined on, drunk on words and their ability to choose the ones they want. 

They may sleep all day. They may PlayStation all night. They may hang out in intimidating packs in the woods or the precinct, forcing the nation to say to itself, as we periodically do, that something ought to be done about kids these days. It wasn’t like that when we were young.

It was exactly like that when we were young.

We, too, stole shopping trolleys and abandoned them in irritating places. We too got bored. We broke hearts and had ours broken in return, sometimes in the space of the same long and sticky summer day. We committed sins in Lacoste tracksuits, were irresponsible in Doc Martens, waited for something to happen with a soundtrack that will forever evoke those weeks. 

“When I think of it now,” one respectable head of faculty told me, “it’s all Depeche Mode and angst.” For me, it’s Billy Bragg, hairspray and desperation. 

In short, we came of age. Whether you’re a Millennial or a Zoomer, a Generation X misanthrope or a Brood X cicada, the summer is when you came of age.  It’s time to let this year’s 16-year-olds do the same.

Tabitha McIntosh is an English teacher and key stage 5 manager at a comprehensive school in outer London. She tweets as @TabitaSurge

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