Research suggests that gap between private and state school pupils has widened during lockdown. Over a third of private schools have offered a full daily timetable of online lessons compared to only 8% of state schools. What does this mean for pupils, especially those facing the most important exams of their school life next summer?
School Guide invited two Year 12 pupils who will enter their final year of A levels in September – one from private school; one from state school – to share their experience of 10 weeks of distance learning.
Edward, 17, attends an independent boarding school in Dorset
I’ve been at my school since I was 13. I was sent as as full time boarder, which is something that I had to learn to love. Since the day I arrived, I was always told how fast it would go by. I never believed it – until now – as I approach my final year. Missing out of a whole term of school sounds like any kids' dream until it actually happens to you.
My initial reaction to hearing that schools were closing was a sense of awkward happiness. I’d been working non-stop, flat out for the whole year for my Biology AS and then suddenly the exam was cancelled. I was happy to have this break but felt uncomfortable celebrating in the environment of a global pandemic.
Before school closed, we had two lectures explaining how online learning would work. The first was an introduction to Microsoft Teams, the platform we used for meetings and virtual lessons, and the second was about online lesson etiquette. It was clear from the outset that expectations were as high as they would be in a real classroom.
From the first week, our lessons followed the exact timetable we had at school, with lessons starting at 8:30 and ending at: 17:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 13:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 11:25 on Saturdays (anti-social, I know). At the start of each lesson, we would usually have a video conference explaining the work (which were optional for international students due to time zones), with work set on the ‘Assignment’ tab for us to complete in 12 hours. We would have homework set as usual, live sport sessions which would be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, along with our other usual extra-curricular activities at their usual times such as music lessons and LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) lessons.
I struggled immensely in the first week, and so did my teachers, as it was a learning process for all of us. The slow WiFi, unreasonable workload and lack of communication from certain teachers during the first couple of weeks was rage inducing and unproductive.
Then the school sent out a questionnaire to parents to find out how their sons were coping; they wanted to know what was good and what was bad about our initial experience of lockdown learning. My parents and I talked this through and my main feedback was that the work load I was being set which was more than I would have usually been set at school.
"Missing out of a whole term of school sounds like any kids' dream until it actually happens to you. But I've had really effective lessons and have ended lockdown by increasing my predicted grades. My teachers have said we are ahead of schedule in terms of our A level courses."
Edward, private school pupil in Year 12
The school responded to these questionnaires and made quite a lot of changes. When we returned after the Easter break, some of my lessons had moved to ‘One Note’, a digital notebook that automatically saves and syncs your notes as you work, and I found this much easier to use than Teams. The workload reduced too which meant I could stay on top of deadlines.
The best part of the whole experience was that I felt much more relaxed. I was still working hard in lessons but there was something about not being in a classroom that put my mind at ease. Secondly, I feel like my time was well spent. I had many friends worrying about how ‘we’ve lost a term’ and how behind they will be at the start, but as we all got into the swing of things, I can honestly say that I’ve learnt as much at home as I would have at school as I’ve achieved the predicted grades that I wanted leading up to year 13.
The worst part of my experience was the lack of social interaction. Going from spending every hour of every day with 70 boys in your boarding house to staying at home, and not seeing a single one of your friends, was hard. We tried video calling each other but it was just never felt the same feeling as being in the boarding house. This took its toll on all of us as we longed for company, and I definitely saw some of my friends get moodier and more sad as the weeks went on. Secondly, the school assemblies that were recorded were not interesting at all. Unlike at school where these assemblies are compulsory, these assemblies were posted to E-Stream where most of them remained unwatched. These assemblies would sometimes contain important information on the term ahead, but the majority of them were uninteresting and bland.
The Trinity Term (Summer Term) at Sherborne is always the most jam-packed. There were a total of nine athletics meets planned that I missed out on, along with many music events, a house play, sports day and much more.
As I look forwards to Year 13, I am feeling surprisingly confident. My teachers have all said that we are actually ahead of schedule. I feel like I have got a good grip of the subjects that I have covered whilst learning virtually. For the majority of my time spent working at home, it has been productive and different. Its taught me versatility, perseverance and patience, which are all vital life skills. In my end of term exams, I achieved 3 As. These are grades that I value very much, perhaps even more so as they were achieved in lockdown, and I am grateful to Sherborne School and my teachers.
Lucy, 17, attends a leading secondary state school in Bath
I am a year 12 student at a state school in Bath where I am studying English, History and Spanish at A Level. I joined my school in year 7 and made the decision to stay on to complete my A Levels as I felt the continuity of support the school could offer would benefit me greatly.
When it was announced that schools were closing, I felt relatively indifferent as I believed we would be returning to normal after the Easter holidays. However, as the prospect of completing my first year of A levels at home seemed more and more likely, my outlook changed drastically. For any student, no matter how dedicated, keeping on top of class work, coursework, UCAS applications and virtual university open days is a stressful experience.
Due to the speed in which teachers had to adapt to the new situation, the first few weeks of at-home learning were spent trying to juggle work set on email, the school’s pupil information management system (SIMS) and the school’s shared drive. It felt really chaotic and challenging to work out what was set and where.
It was a learning curve for all of us and the teachers moved to setting work only via the online school portal. This felt more familiar.
However, the amount of work that was set was extremely difficult to manage. I found myself spending the majority of the day sat at the computer in order to complete the bare minimum.
Also, during this time, we were receiving no online lessons or meetings with our teachers so we were essentially teaching ourselves the A level content. For me, as I’m studying three challenging academic subjects, I found the content far too complex to grasp by myself and felt extremely overwhelmed. I think I am an able student as I got a number of top grades at GCSE. If I struggled, I can’t imagine how others will have coped.
For example, a particular history assignment which was meant to take an hour, ended up taking me three days to complete. Mainly because I had to research all the content myself. Although we were encouraged to email our teachers with any queries, I didn’t find it very helpful as, understandably in the situation, my teachers would usually take a day or two to respond to my questions, at which point I had moved on to other work.
Overall, the first months of online learning were extremely stressful and took a huge toll on my mental health. Even though I consider myself to be a driven, hardworking student, I found it almost impossible to keep up my motivation and not let myself get swallowed by deadlines and the idea I might be falling behind compared to other pupils in other schools.
Thankfully, after parental feedback, some changes were made: the work load was reduced and online lessons and ‘catch ups’ were introduced on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I found these virtual contact hours extremely helpful as it gave us the opportunity to ask any questions live and so my understanding of the content improved dramatically. I just wished they had been in place from the outset as I think it would have saved a great deal of stress and worry.
However, I only received a maximum of one hour-long meeting per week with each of my subject teachers. And often, these weekly meetings were cut short or weren't even scheduled by some teachers.
"I can't pretend that I'm not worried about going into my final year of A levels. I have no idea whether I am a bit behind or far behind where I should be at this point. I'll be working all summer as I know I'll need to put in twice the effort to compete with pupils from other schools to get the top grades I want."
Lucy, state school pupil in Year 12
As the end of term approached, it was announced that mock exams would be held virtually. As these mock results would count towards our predicted grades for our university applications, I felt enormous pressure to succeed in spite of the already challenging circumstances. The end of term was also filled with uncertainty as no assemblies or end-of-year celebrations were organised. Therefore, we ended the year with little clarification on what was expected for us to complete before year 13. After requesting more information, I learnt that, during the holidays, I must complete my coursework, my personal statement, and the majority of my UCAS application. All of this with the school closed. No summer break for me then.
In my opinion, the worst part of the experience was attempting to balance my time between completing my classwork, working towards my UCAS application, and attending virtual open days, all whilst still trying to find time for breaks. It felt like there were barely enough hours in the day to complete everything I needed to do. And it was a struggle to maintain a positive attitude and care for my mental health. However, I am in an extremely privileged situation and, as a member of the Sixth Form Leadership Team, I was made aware that other students found the experience far more challenging. Some of my peers struggled to keep up as they didn’t have a space to work or had to use a shared family computer and wait for times to get online.
Although the experience was the biggest test of my resilience and motivation that I’ve faced during my time in education, I’ve found that there were some positive consequences. My work ethic has improved massively and I now feel more prepared than ever for A level revision in Year 13 and independent study at university. The experience has shown me that I am far more driven and independent than I ever would have imagined and has taught me to have confidence in my abilities. If this lockdown has taught me anything, it is the importance of being able to adapt to new situations.
As I face Year 13, I can’t pretend I’m not worried. I don’t know how far behind we are. I never considered being at a state school as a disadvantage but when I speak to friends at private schools about how many extra lessons and pastoral support they have had, I know I am going to have to work twice as hard next year.