Helen Cadbury believes a new school policy is adding stress to GCSE pupils and forcing parents to lie
What is happening to our GCSE-age children? Suddenly, in York and all over the country, they are being forced to stay in school, full-time, throughout the public exam period.
This might have seemed a good idea when it was voluntary or even targeted at those who needed it the most, but as a blanket rule it’s not workable; the kids vote with their feet or the parents are forced to lie about made up illnesses.
In the most intense weeks of exams, instead of coming home, recharging their batteries, and getting ready for the next day, they sit in pointless revision sessions, sometimes taught, which is great, but sometimes just babysat.
In the evening they hunch over the computer or a revision book, panicking about the next day, instead of getting an early night.
Or they get up and leave, get labeled a truant and are threatened with being banned from their own end of year prom.
On the other hand, this week, some compliant students will have spent five full days in school with no actual lessons – just supervised revision in a computer room, for one 60 minute exam on Friday.
The upshot is: stress for the teachers struggling to keep them focused, stressed children, stressed parents who are having to persuade them to go.
All this against a backdrop of other parents who are teaching their children that it’s OK to feign illness in order to have a day off. This last group are not naturally dishonest, far from it – they just can’t see the point and are putting the welfare of their children first.
Worst of all, forced attendance is not teaching these young people any independent study skills or preparing them for A levels in any meaningful way.
Study leave works
When I was at school, doing O levels (yes, I’m that old), we broke up for half term and when we came back we were only expected to attend on the morning or afternoon when an exam was taking place.
The rest of the time we were studying independently at home.
When my oldest son took his GCSEs three years ago, the same system was in place, although the exams started earlier than they used to and the school helpfully put on extra revision sessions, particularly targeting borderline students.
At home he had to get used to working on his own and was more or less successful at this.
When a session at school was offered, he took it, as it broke the monotony of being on his own and gave him an opportunity to fill in some gaps in his learning.
I understand that there’s been a creeping change, with some schools reducing study leave gradually over the past few years and some doing away with it all together.
But it was up to the schools to make that decision, depending on the needs of the young people in their care.
By targeting revision sessions to those who needed them, they could be correctly staffed, delivered to smaller groups and at the right level.
I’ve spoken to children, teachers and parents, all of whom feel the current situation leads to frustrated learners, distracted by others.
Teachers have to deal with behaviour issues brought on by boredom. Young people, especially those with special needs or health issues, are unable to recover or recharge their batteries properly between exams.
The Department of Education Schools guidance (November 2013) states the following:
Schools must record study leave as authorised absence. Study leave should be used sparingly and only granted to Year 11 pupils during public examinations. Provision should still be made available for those pupils who want to continue to come into school to revise.
So why has study leave been cancelled in virtually every York secondary school or many more nationally?
Why will they only be allowed to have study leave from June 13, when most of the exams are over?
Is it because even authorised absences can be used as a stick to beat school management with? The educational needs of our young people come second to the data yet again.
Parents forced to lie
Off the record, I know that several schools are trying to find a workable solution. Off the record, no teacher I spoke to wanted to be named or their school or even local authority identified.
It seems that criticising this government’s educational policy, even when you believe it to be harming young people’s learning and potentially their physical and mental health, is just too professionally dangerous – which is quite alarming from a parent’s point of view.
My research uncovered a comment from a teacher in the South East who’d been told that parents would be fined from next year if they took their children out of school during what used to be known as study leave.
I assume that is even the case now, unless they cite a non-existent illness.
It seems that criticising this government’s educational policy, even when you believe it to be harming young people’s learning and potentially their physical and mental health, is just too professionally dangerous
Some schools must look like they’re having an epidemic of flulike symptoms and tummy bugs among their year 11s, sufficient to trigger a public health warning.
I will admit I let my youngest son stay off school one day last week. I tried to do so without lying.
He had been ill at half term and he did have a bit of a cough, but in truth, he needed to sleep and he needed a bit of peace and quiet.
I happen to think that is both a medical and an educational need, but I’m not sure how the school has recorded it, as I spoke to them and explained how I felt, and I was completely honest.
My son proved that he could use his time well by getting up at lunchtime and doing a practice maths paper. His cough had vanished.
His friends who went to school were offered three hours in the morning of sitting in an IT classroom without any direct teaching – and when offered the same in the afternoon, pleaded to be allowed to help out their head of year, as they were out of their minds with boredom.
I don’t think my own decision was against the letter or the spirit of the government guidelines, so I await to see whether a fine arrives in the post!
I hardly feel like Spartacus, but I know I’m not alone.