THE closure of schools across the UK has probably come a week too soon but it was inevitable. Around a quarter of teachers were self-isolating and a similar proportion of parents have been keeping their children at home. Against a background of rising panic the pressure on schools was becoming intolerable.
Teachers have been expressing concern about a perceived risk to which they are being exposed within the school environment. For once, the health and safety concerns of the profession have a ring of truth. Young people may be at minimal danger from the serious consequences of infection but middle-aged teachers are more vulnerable.
Some schools will remain open to provide food and care for pupils at risk and those who rely on a free school meal. In addition, the children of key workers – nurses, doctors, police etc – will have access to school-based supervision. This is sensible and necessary.
Many problems now face families. How effectively will schools be able to provide home-based learning? What provision can be made for children who do not have internet access or a computer? How many grandparents, more endangered by the virus, will have to take on a child-minding role? And so on . . .
The government ministers and civil servants who are now making key decisions about our children are inclined to suffer from a key deficiency. They do not fully understand the mentality and mindset of most children. We may get away with confining children for a week or two but, after that, many are as likely to be climbing up the walls as will be inclined to home study. Even in our digital age, children need space and outlets for excess energy.
Teachers are well aware of this fact. On a daily basis, too many are at the rough end of poor behaviour from a minority of pupils. Within five years more than a third of new teachers leave the profession. With the closure of schools some of this ill-disciplined behaviour is likely soon to be more visible in the community at large.
None of these forebodings should make us despair. Around 60,000 children are already home-schooled in England. This represents a doubling in the past four years.
For some children, learning at home is an escape from poor teaching, from bullying and from boredom. If parents are determined, able and capable they may see the current school closure as much an opportunity as a crisis.
It is the cancellation of this summer’s public examinations that is likely to cause the greatest angst amongst pupils and their parents. Several years of preparation for exams that do not take place will be quite a blow for most, if not all, of this year’s exam cohort.
Pupils might take some comfort from the fact that examiners in recent decades have never knowingly been too harsh. Sub-20 per cent pass marks are evidence of their generosity. If, as might happen this summer, teacher estimates form the basis of grades for GCSE and A-Level, young people have little to fear.
The coronavirus, in fact, might turn out to be quite a bonus because in most cases pupils will be awarded grades beyond what they deserve. A seminal piece of research for University College London in 2016 analysed the data for nearly 1.4million students who progressed to higher education. It discovered that only 16 per cent of applicants achieved the A-level grade points that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best three A-levels. The vast majority (75 per cent of applicants) were over-predicted – i.e. their grades were predicted to be higher than they achieved.
Think about it. In the future, the doctor who treats your illness, the engineer who builds the bridge you are driving over or the financier who is handing your money may have made the grade only via an over-generous examination prediction. That could turn out to be an unreported consequence of the pandemic.