The Strangest Of Times

Issue 58

I'm writing this column at the end of the strangest and most stressful week in my twenty-five years in education. I am always conscious that I write this column around three weeks before it is published and so try to anticipate what might be of interest to readers when they may see it.

This month though I am too afraid to think what may be facing all of us when this edition of Northern Insight hits the region. As I write now, schools have closed today to all children except those of key workers or who may be vulnerable for some reason. I cannot quarrel with that policy; healthcare workers for example are putting themselves on the frontline in this particular war for all of our benefit. The death rates for those who are dealing face to face with coronavirus sufferers is much higher than the general population and they are putting their lives, and those of their families, on the line in a way which is scarcely imaginable for the rest of us.

The challenge those of us working in schools face is of course of a lesser magnitude but it is still the case that thousands of teachers will be involved in looking after pupils, some of whom will carry the virus. Yet I have not heard a whisper of complaint from the staff at my school or any others. Many colleagues have volunteered to help, suggesting ways in which those children can be looked after effectively at our schools. The word ‘hero’ can be overused in education, but people who are prepared to put themselves at risk to aid what increasingly feels like a war effort can legitimately be described as such.

So, as far as it can, life goes on. A levels and GCSEs however do not, with a mix of teacher assessment and government jiggery pokery the mechanism by which the grades for both will be awarded this year. It’s hard to overestimate how disappointed 16- and 18-year olds are by this decision. Again, I offer no criticism of the decision, as it was unfathomable how a normal examination timetable could be run, but the feeling is that of a prize fighter who, after months of training, technique and motivational psychology, steps into the ring only to watch his opponent trip on his bootlace and knock himself out on one of the corner posts. Despite bravado to the contrary, the sense of anti-climax these youngsters feel is aching, and it is up to us as teachers and parents not to let this be a shattering experience. These kids potentially have the rest of their lives to resent the denial of the opportunity to earn their results the coronavirus has brought.

However, in the light of the crisis we all face, it’s not important. What is most important now is to have one’s health and the health of one’s family. I daresay (well, actually I hope) that none of us faces a challenge like this again in our lives. The magic combination Mother Nature seems to have found – a virus that is infectious without symptoms, easily transmitted and with a significant death rate – presents a threat that will recalibrate our lives for years to come. What is important is getting thorough the next few weeks and months and, to use a phrase that is being used increasingly emphatically, see you on the other side.

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