It now appears that school’s out till after the summer for pretty much all secondary pupils. The loudest cries, an equal mix of exaltation and despair, come from those who were due to sit GCSE and A-l-evel exams this term: groups now split between delight at unstructured months of leisure time and anxiety that lackadaisical efforts in mock exams won’t prove enough to secure them the required grades.
Yet my sympathies in this stalemate lie with those in Year 12, or the lower-sixth, the sandwich year between the two public exam groups. The Prime Minister has said that from 15 June, these 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed ‘some contact’ with their teachers, but with just one quarter of the usual class permitted to be present at any one time.
I am interested in the fate of this particular year group for a very simple reason: my lower-sixth year, and the inspirational broadening of horizons that it offered me, constituted the three most formative terms that I experienced in all my years of education. They continue to shape me, in ways both practical and psychological, to this day, 28 years later. My heart goes out to all those students who have had so many of the possibilities of this precious time wrenched away.
What is so liberating about Year 12 is that you can finally begin to settle into some loose form of your adult self. Freed from the curriculum straitjacket of GCSEs and all the subjects about which you give no kind of hoot, you can start to mould your tastes and interests and think a little about the shape your life might take. For many students, the sixth form represents the first time in their school careers that it is acceptable to show some interest in learning for learning’s sake.
No longer is every single hour of the school day frantically timetabled. Instead there are free periods in which you can broaden your interests or, indeed, bunk off for a different sort of learning experience. In my free periods in the lower-sixth I hunkered down in the library to read Jude the Obscure, quite simply the gloomiest book ever written in the English language. ‘Hey Jude, don’t be obscure,’ as one wag of a teacher put it. After the frenetic structure of GCSEs, which saw us forever haring about from chemistry to French to history, having the time — and mental down-time — to sit in a comfortable chair and read miserable novels was pure luxury. Then, as now (since the major downgrading of AS-levels in the past few years), Year 12 was a one-year break in the mad exam machine, before the pressure cranks up all over again for A-levels.
And the teaching! Class sizes for A-level are smaller and populated by students with at least a passing interest in the subject, leading to greater rigour, depth and engagement. The teacher-pupil relationship shifts, slightly but profoundly, leading to a stronger sense of mutual respect for shared interests.
During my time in the lower-sixth, one of our inspirational English teachers decided that the best way to teach us the latest in practical criticism skills was to have us deconstruct that behemoth of world literature, Dennis the Menace. Our other English teacher, a gloriously old-school, old--fashioned gentleman of the very best sort, would walk around the classroom reading the poetry of Wordsworth and Betjeman and commenting only: ‘Ah, what words!’
In short, in Year 12 teenagers are treated like adults for the first time — it is no coincidence that this is the year many schools permit a loosening of uniform requirements — and encouraged to explore their interests, while of course having time to spend in the company of friends. It’s the ideal moment to fine-tune these social relationships too, given that Year 12 often provides a welcome infusion of new blood in the form of pupils changing school for A-level study.
The idea that the Year 12s of 2020, isolated behind their lonely screens at home, will have such a curtailed experience makes me feel wistful about all their lost possibilities. I doubt it is much fun to deconstruct Dennis the Menace via Zoom — if indeed all Year 12s are even being afforded remote interaction with their teachers and peers, instead of endless faceless worksheets.