Our GCSE-year kids risk being a forgotten generation

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More than half a million children, who were due to sit GCSEs this year, won’t be heading back to the classroom when schools reopen this month. My son Leo* is among them, and I fear the uncertain future faced by the GCSE class of 2020. 

Leo won’t yet be 16 on August 20, when he’s allocated grades for exams he did not take. These grades will decide his future, but even if he passes and is allowed to progress, he and plenty of others like him risk being mentally unprepared when they are catapulted back into formal education in the autumn. (Sadly, not all children are blessed with adequate private tuition, or mature enough to rely on independent learning.) 

By September, Leo’s cohort will have been out of formal education for six months—idle, impressionable, angst-ridden months, when teens may be socially isolated, open to dangerous influences, unmotivated, depressed, and worse. Yet, for both policy makers and teachers, the current focus is almost exclusively on younger children, and those more obviously vulnerable. There’s no robust plan of support for a whole generation at risk—now, when they need it most.

“The government should prioritise getting the teens back. This is not doing them any good at all,” says Selina, the mother of one of Leo’s friends.“They are the forgotten generation, and are really suffering from not being at school.”

Roughly one third of these kids won’t get the grades they need to progress to the next stage of their education, and Leo, I fear, will be among them. Few concessions are on offer from his state-funded school. The head recommends a “wait and see” approach, and has advised us to look at backup options: BTECs at colleges much further away, or vocational courses at the local technical college. It’s a far cry from what we envisaged when Leo started out studying for an EBacc to boost his future prospects.   

Without five GCSE passes, young people are locked out of A levels and BTEC qualifications. Our educational system has put more emphasis on exam attainment at 16 than almost anywhere else in the world. Now, these children must rely on biased teacher assessment, a ranking order and standardising metrics to decide their future—a system so complex, few understand it. 

In a snap poll of 750 teenagers by The Student Room website, two thirds didn’t believe they would be given a fair grade. GCSEs in 2020 are closer to a lottery than an exam, if rumours about the “many borderline cases” are to be believed. 

Like countless others, Leo was planning to knuckle down for his exams proper. He didn’t work for his mocks, or consistently throughout the past year, due to distractions—mainly gaming, girls and raging hormones. This now counts against him. He’s further disadvantaged by being very young for his year, and suffers from a health condition which meant he missed a lot of school in the past.

None of these factors will be taken into account with the current system of grading. If so many other things are being considered, why shouldn’t these factors be given weight too?

If (and it’s by no means certain) Leo can sit the exams he fails in November, he will have been out of formal education for more than eight months. 

The new consultation on the proposed autumn exam series recommends that A-level grades be awarded in December so that students can start courses in January, but there’s no provision for GCSE students hoping to immediately study for A-levels. They may have to wait a year, says the document.

How will students prepare for these exams? What will they do in the interim if there is no work for them, and they can’t enter further education immediately? The intent seems to be to discourage kids from taking these exams, but many will have little choice if they are to progress.

In an ideal world, this year at least, further education institutions would ignore GCSEs altogether. If necessary, students could demonstrate their aptitude for their chosen A-level or BTEC with an entrance exam. And why not take the opportunity to scrap GCSEs altogether, and bring the UK in line with most of the rest of the world and introduce key exams at 18?

The same goes for repeating a year—common in many other countries, but not in the UK. I floated the idea with Leo’s school but was told it was unprecedented. It’s controversial, because studies suggest repeating a year may do more harm than good. Students risk dropping out, falling even further behind, and suffering psychologically. It’s also unlikely to be popular with cash-strapped schools because the average cost per pupil is around £6,000 per year

Such interventions are unpredictable and costly, but doing nothing is, too. The time for innovation is now, before the disparity with Zoom-educated, private school pupils becomes greater still. 

Introducing new, concessionary measures further down the line would betray this uniquely vulnerable generation. 

Leo’s school stopped sending out GCSE work in April, and has set transition material for students planning to stay in education. But unlike many private schools, there’s been no interaction with teachers, who seem preoccupied with things other than students. 

Leo’s friend Harry tried emailing his maths teacher with a query, but was rudely rebuffed. He’d planned to do an apprenticeship after GCSEs, but few employers are going ahead with their programmes now, according to his father. 

“These guys are at an extreme disadvantage,” he said. “I worry about it every single day. They need to be given their education back, or they will suffer in the long run. I really do think they’re going to struggle.”

The uncertainty is worst of all. The impact of prolonged school closures has been compared to a natural disaster. Researchers believe the changes to our kids’ academic pathways may have life-long implications.

One parent believes that exams were cancelled prematurely, because “everyone panicked.” Her son’s school is supportive, but he’s not interested in doing resits. She plans to take action against the school, should he fail to secure a sixth form place. 

“It’s really A-levels where kids demonstrate their true colours,” a teacher has advised her.  

Surely, then, we should be doing more to ensure that the kids who were hoping to take A-levels and BTECs this year are allowed to. Right now, there are so few other viable alternatives out there. 

* Names have been changed.

Is your child part of the GCSE cohort with an uncertain future? What have you been doing to support them? Let us know in the comments below.