By Cllr Graham Morgan, Leader of Knowsley Council
Last week, I spent a very enjoyable morning “meeting” and chatting to students and teachers across Knowsley on GCSE results day.
During a truly unprecedented end to their school careers, the Class of 2020 found themselves with no classroom education for months on end, exams cancelled, and uncertainty about what would happen next.
It was fascinating to speak to so many young people (on a whistle-stop tour around the schools from my living room, thanks to the wonders of video conferencing!) and I was glad to get the chance to hear first-hand about how they’ve been coping with lockdown and the added pressure of being in their GCSE year.
I must say that the young people who I spoke to were all very positive and focused about their futures. They were relieved to have got the grades they needed – and felt they deserved – to go on to their next steps. Among them were budding scientists, actors, mathematicians, footballers, and engineers. Not one of the young people who I spoke to felt that COVID-19 would stop them from achieving their dreams – and it was really great to see such positivity and excellence.
Up until a few days before the GCSE results came out, I was really worried that our young people might be left carrying the scars of the COVID-19 lockdown for life. We had all seen the debacle around A Level results the week before, with students missing out on their university places after being awarded grades by a flawed “algorithm” which handed out D grades to straight A students. Assessments by those who know the students best – their teachers and schools – had been ignored and the results were heart-breaking for many. Worse still, the Government’s soulless and heartless algorithm seemed to have a built-in bias in favour of affluent areas and private schools and colleges. To me, the Government’s approach was unforgivable, and it was made even worse when the Minister for Education said that he “hadn’t seen the problems coming”. He must have been the only person who wasn’t watching the news when exactly the same thing had happened in Scotland two weeks earlier.
Thankfully, in the end, the Government bowed to national pressure and scrapped their intrinsically unfair process, conceding that perhaps the first-hand knowledge of the professionals who’ve worked with these students for the past five years might just be superior to a computer programme which took no account all of anybody as an individual.
When I spoke to them, the students seemed to feel that their grades were in line with their expectations and their teachers were confident that they provided a truer picture of each young person’s ability. I’m really delighted that they can now confidently pursue their next steps and not be held back as the result of circumstances far beyond their control.
In my conversations with them, I asked the young people what impact they felt the last few months had had on their mental health. The answers were really interesting. Many of them agreed that it had had an impact on them – especially in the early days of lockdown. But they felt that, with the passing of time and support from their families and schools, they’ve largely been able to adjust and cope with the new realities of life. It’s not always as easy for everyone, but the willingness to talk candidly about mental health is something that’s a real strength for our younger generation – I think us “oldies” could learn a lot from their approach. But being able to talk is only one part of the solution – life can be extremely overwhelming for a young person – with so many changes, choices and challenges all seeming to happen at the same time. This year perhaps more so than ever.
Throughout this pandemic, as a council, we’ve been working really hard to ensure that people know what mental health support is available for them. We’re living through a really difficult time in history – there is absolutely no shame in needing a little extra help and support.
For young people of any age, I understand that September being only a week away may now be creating a sense of anxiety about what this brings – starting a new school, college or university, or simply the natural worries about going back to school after so long out of the classroom. For any young person feeling this way, or any parent wondering how they can best support their child, please take a look at the advice and sources of help that are available.
And for families preparing for the start of the new term, I just want you to know that we appreciate and understand the worries which you may have. Everything from parents not being sure about the arrangements for drop-off to young people concerned about what might have changed at school when they go back. COVID-19 continually throws change in all our directions and for parents and carers I know the worries can extend way beyond the practicalities. That’s why this week I have written an open letter to parents and carers assuring them of the work that has been carried out in our schools to prepare safely for the new term. We have also produced a handy guide on What to Remember for September with top tips on everything from checking your school’s website to what to do if your child or you have COVID-19 symptoms once they are back in the classroom. I hope it helps in some small way.