Unprecedented times call for decisions based on trust

A Parents Perspective by David Finney, father of Sam, a year 11 learner in a south Wales comprehensive school

 by David Finney

Parenting is all about milestones. Remember the first eighteen months when everything was about your red baby book and percentiles? Potty training, walking, swimming their first width of the pool? The excitement when Biff and Chip picture books started to feature words? The news that your pride and joy was now allowed to move from a pencil to a pen?  

Then came comprehensive school when suddenly it all felt a bit more real. As parents we worried about sets for maths, fathoming those traffic light system on end of term reports, waving them off not for a day at Bristol Zoo, but to Austria on an eight-day ski trip. 

And all the while, GCSEs loomed. 

Maybe we were guilty of helicopter parenting, or whatever label they put on mums and dads who hover anxiously over their child’s school journey, but we began the GCSE conversation with our boy Sam as soon as he joined his comprehensive school in south Wales. Every time he grumbled about revising for a maths test or completing a creative writing assignment, we reminded him that his year 11 future self would thank the eye-rolling year 7 version that he had started early. 

Everything was focussed on the summer of 2020 when those choices he had made earlier in his school life, would be realised. Rightly or wrongly, we went in heavy on the bargaining: Treats for the As and A*s we knew he was capable of, the prospect of 10 weeks of fun once it was all over, that hoodie with the tiny label which inflated its price 5-fold. 

Never, ever did we contemplate him not taking those exams, that 10 weeks of fun would be exchanged for months of isolation, uncertainty, confusion and bewilderment. 

First came the school closure. Sam was ill on what turned out to be his last day, so it was an especially abrupt end to his compulsory education. He had no idea his last lesson (English, one of his favourites), would be the last. He never got to say goodbye to friends or teachers or consider that was the last time he would put on his school tie. 

He didn’t even have the joy of knowing he never had to study his least favourite subject again! 

We speculated whether GCSEs would go ahead at a later date. I can remember finding out they wouldn’t and us sitting there as a family. What was the emotion? Not relief or excitement or disappointment. Just shock. Then came the questions about how our boy and all those thousands of other GCSE and A-level students would be properly, fairly assessed and awarded a grade. 

We also considered - and still do - whether the class of 2020 will forever be labelled as the students who didn’t take exams and whether there would be an enduring question mark about whether they did/didn’t deserve the grade they were awarded. 

Sam’s school did an outstanding job of communicating with their students, in our opinion. They were fair, honest and clear, acknowledging the fear and confusion of pupils and parents alike. I suspect they were bombarded with calls, but we made the decision to trust that they would share what they could when they could. They, like us, were experiencing an unprecedented challenge. 

The FAQs and subsequent documents from WJEC and Qualifications Wales, the qualifications regulator in Wales have really helped. Knowledge has truly been power. It’s been useful to get their updates via the school as they have been feeling their way through a mind-boggling process. Credit too, to Kirsty Williams, the Minister for Education; being responsible for the lives and education of all Welsh children in the shadow of a pandemic can never have been something she planned for. I have personally appreciated her willingness to answer the questions that students and parents have.  

It feels like there’s been no perfect solution to questions around assessments, grading, home schooling, re-opening schools. A bit like Sam’s English literature GCSE, it’s been about interpreting this in the best way possible, using the evidence, adding value, and justifying your point of view. 

So now, we wait. We are scared, of course. What does a rank order mean? Does it depend on how much a teacher likes you? What if, like Sam, you didn’t have a great set of mock results, in his case because of illness? Will his course work, which he tried so hard on, stand him in good stead? 

We’ve made a conscious choice as a family to trust in Sam’s teachers, and hope that they will recognise what he’s achieved so far and see his tremendous potential. What more can we do? Right now, I’m focussed on keeping our family safe and well, protecting their physical and mental health, and hoping that those responsible for this enormous task will keep communicating clearly, consistently and with an understanding that the class of 2020 will need huge support going forward. 

This time last year was all about revising for Of Mice and Men, and I’m struck by this quote from Steinbeck’s 1937 masterpiece which feels especially relevant today: ‘As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment…’ 

I hope for Sam and his friends, that this moment ends soon. 

Published 14 May 2020