17th August 2021

Let’s celebrate children’s achievements – not scrabble for debates about systems

Children’s Commissioner for England

I wrote this blog about the generation of children who were expecting their exam results for 2021. It was published in the Telegraph newspaper on A level results day.

If there’s a person who doesn’t think children have had one of the most challenging times of their young lives of late, I haven’t met them and frankly I doubt they exist.

We rightly closed schools to stave off overwhelming our NHS, in the face of soaring Covid infection rates and deaths. In doing so, though, the pandemic meant those least affected by the virus paid the highest price for protecting us all. Children understood why, they understood the severity of the crisis, after all many of them are grieving too for loved and lost family members.

However, for that understanding they’ve missed friends, social interaction, and missed everyday things they relied on to keep them not just living well but being well in themselves. Truth be told, and they tell it to me, they missed school.

On top of all this we have expected them to keep up as best they can with their education. In circumstances where some felt isolated, disconnected and overlooked they have done their best, their teachers have done their best, in unprecedented circumstances. No not everything worked instantly but schools and staff worked tirelessly. Schools were open to the most vulnerable and offering as much as we could to keep children engaged, connected and learning. At times it’s been hard.

I have spent my life in schools – as a teacher and then a Headteacher, running a chain of schools, right up until I took the role of Children’s Commissioner in March this year. My main passion has always been to close the gap between disadvantaged children and those who have a better start in life, and I have turned around schools, so they deliver for every child. This is still my mission as Commissioner. And, after living this pandemic on the corridors and in the classrooms of schools I have seen first-hand what a fantastic job teachers have done this year.

We need to reward teachers’ effort by giving them some trust. The results coming this week are themselves the result of hard-working teachers being both educators and exam board at the same time and often in their spare time. Parents need to trust them, in these extraordinary circumstances, to deliver fair and honest verdicts this week to our children, based on their unique knowledge of their pupils in the classroom, in the school, and as part of that school community. It’s quite hard to see how else this could have been done this year.

I remain convinced with the right focus and these same hard-working teachers we can not only get back what has been lost but go even further to level the academic playing field.

I’m not viewing the pandemic through rose-tinted spectacles. There’s no doubt up and down the country children have told me with a passionate authenticity and impossible to ignore sincerity about the problems the lockdowns and school closures produced for them. For those already disadvantaged, that amplified those problems.

Which makes it all the more surprising to tell you what else they’ve told me. Over and over again:

This generation, in their hundreds of thousands, in responses to my Big Ask survey, the largest of its kind ever, are still optimistic.
Yes, they have concerns about their wellbeing, and getting on in life and myriad other issues, and we must and will hear that message and act on it but they are still optimistic, and many are doing well. Trust me, there’s no lack of ambition in all England’s children. They all have an absolute desire for a great job and career, a great life ahead and these results allow them to move on to the next stage in their school or work career.

You have to hand it to a young generation already tired of being labelled as “lost”, for their sheer resilience. It’s actually inspirational.
And we owe them something for that.

So, when these same children open results this week, albeit not via the process any of them could have expected when they first entered school, I’d urge us to celebrate them. What they’ve gone through, how they’ve handled themselves and how it’s their achievements that should be our focus.

We shouldn’t be scrabbling for debates about systems but trumpeting the positives, and confident we can address some of the issues the pandemic has frustratingly handed us. This is a generation of children who don’t need a dissection of the past but our serious focus on their future as they take further steps in their education.

Enough of getting stuck in ruts, debating what hasn’t happened, and celebrate getting another group of kids moving forward with their education, and doing the best they can, in some of the worst of circumstances, that none of us could have predicted just two years ago. Let’s celebrate that and them and renew our commitment to getting them, all of them, especially the most disadvantaged to where they need to be for the future. We can do it and they, honestly, deserve it