A* in resilience – what teenagers do best?

If you were to scan many secondary school websites, state or independent, the single word that constantly catches the eye is ‘resilience’. It’s there, time and time again, shouting resolutely how strength over adversity is an integral part of childhood development, and yet as we face the gradual return to exam normality there is a chant, in some quarters, to cry defeat on behalf of our young ones, even before they have had a chance to show their mettle.

One of MMP’s most Senior Examiners, a veteran of 25 years has worked with some of the most disadvantaged children within our education system and offers an insight into how children may positively surprise us on their return to school, writing…

“Three years ago, whilst working in Blackpool, I taught a girl who had to commute by train from Manchester to take her GCSE exams. When she arrived at the station she was met by a member of staff and escorted by taxi to the school. She was living in a shelter for battered women with her mother and sister having escaped from the violent father she was terrified of encountering. She passed all her exams. Years before, also in Blackpool, I taught another girl who sat many of her GCSE papers in hospital shortly after giving birth to her own daughter. She is now a doctor. Last year, a boy I taught in Preston, achieved top grades after spending most of Year 10 being treated for Leukaemia. My point? Many teenagers are stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for and when they inevitably return bleary-eyed to school after the Covid 19 pandemic they should be greeted with challenge and high expectations rather than a free pass to under achievement.

Of course the recent weeks and months have been anxious ones for everybody. The images of sci-fi medics clad head to toe in PPE, exhausted and yet working relentlessly to save lives, the daily multi-coloured upwardly mobile trajectory graphs of death and the fear of each stressful venture from the safety of home to buy only essentials have made us all at times feel trapped in some dystopian nightmare. And, despite the rainbows, it is nonsense to suggest we are all in the same boat. To mangle the metaphors, we may all be facing the same storm but in an infinite variety of differing vessels as aptly demonstrated in the ‘Cummings and goings’ of recent news headlines. In the weeks, months and even years to come, stories of unimaginable lockdown suffering will inevitably emerge. For children, home-schooling, often reliant on engaged, supportive parenting and access to technology will also have meant that those already disadvantaged may have slipped further behind and further away from valuing education. However, in my opinion, it would be wrong to focus the return to school for all on a period of nurturing and emotional support. Some will need it and hopefully schools will be aware and prepared enough to provide this level of care. But for the overwhelming majority this will not be what they need or want and it would be doing them a disservice to make this assumption.

We could alternatively even allow the possibility that despite the threat of Covid 19, time at home, for some children and teenagers, has been quite a positive experience. For a large part the weather has been good which has been an advantage for those with a garden. They may have enjoyed spending more time with their parents and siblings and strengthened these relationships. They may have had a different sort of education; learnt to cook, painted fences (built a few bridges) and engaged more frequently with extended family than they usually would; albeit via Zoom and other virtual spaces. Time out may have made them feel more relaxed, healthier and more self-confident. Now, many thousands (although they may not admit it) will be looking forward to going back to school, looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers, looking forward to resuming their education and learning something new. For many, the thought of exams being cancelled and the effect it may have on their future is of huge concern. It would therefore be wrong to view schools as field hospitals for the walking wounded and chronically anxious when what most will need and want will be to get back to something positive, focussed and as close to normal as possible.

Reading this, you may well be imagining an iron-knickered, ‘stuff and nonsense’, Miss Trunchbull writer which would, on the whole, be inaccurate. I have, however, been concerned by the growing perception in the media that the priority when children return to the classrooms will be a curriculum laden with mental health awareness and emotional well-being. Of course the bereaved, the abused and the genuinely traumatised must be given the expert care they need. But these experts are not teachers and expecting them to assume this role could potentially cause more harm. Teachers should be ready and allowed to do what they were trained to do and resume the education of the children in their classes; inspire and engage them with the love and enthusiasm for and the knowledge of their subject which is only partly possible remotely. Those who can should teach and remind children what they have missed about actually coming to school.

A feature of the proposed re-opening of schools which causes me further worry is those who seem to be expecting or anticipating future failure and suggesting plans to accommodate it. Some have attempted to launch petitions to have subject content removed from GCSE and A’ level exams in 2021. This level of projected negativity is dangerous; sanctioning a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to excuse prematurely a lack of aspiration and resulting mediocrity. Teachers need to present a positive ‘can do’ attitude to their students not wring their hands and offer exemption for possible outcomes that haven’t happened yet. They should reward those who have worked well in ‘Lockdown Land’ without dwelling too much on those who have been less willing to engage virtually and then look forward to what is to come and be achieved. Focus can then be applied to those who have fallen behind but there will no doubt be some who have moved streets ahead and that is to be applauded. Anxieties about data and deadlines should be confined to meetings behind closed doors and the focus and purpose of returning to school for the children should surely be the celebration of education.

A few years ago, an iconic World War 2 slogan was revived, adapted and became irritatingly ubiquitous. This was perhaps because the initial Ministry of War message was clear and sensible and in the face of those ‘unprecedented’ circumstances necessary. When the schools are deemed safe and ready to reopen I humbly suggest that the overwhelming majority of teachers and students should Keep Calm and Carry On. This is a time to be positive, to cheer our students on to show strength in the face of adversity and encourage the spirit of what we claim to cherish most – resilience.”

It’s heartening to hear from clients old and new everywhere who are working so hard to coordinate the return to school at a safe and appropriate time. Our clients in distant and challenging world regions continue to prioritise success in education as the route forward for their students to build successful lives and careers. It’s a privilege for us to reside in a world region rarely hit by catastrophe and very sobering to hear from others who so often travel a path through famine, disease and destruction with great stoicism and positivity.

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