Kids on the edge

Kids on the edge

Posted: Tue, 31 Aug 2021 16:25

Kids on the edge

You may have been following the new Channel Four documentary, 'Sixteen: Class of 2021'. It followed a group of final year students at the Link Academy in Dudley during the trauma of the pandemic. It is an honest and, at times, brutal account of what our young people in school shared during lockdowns that ranged from in class-learning to on-line in their pyjamas! We saw the highs and lows of this cohort as they worked towards success in their GCSE examinations. In the best of times this is never an easy task, given hormonal changes, and the tension of growing up, while their parents still want them to be children. However, factor in a global pandemic and the dynamic changes dramatically. Lockdown robbed this age group of the freedoms that they loved: no trips to the park, gym, cinema or the mall. No 'hanging out' with their friends—except on Facebook and other social media. Sixteenth birthday parties were missed, along with Christmas celebrations. While, as adults, we might have been so critical of social media, we were grateful for the power of the internet for keeping us in employment and in touch when the world closed down. Indeed, it was this very cohort that we referred to when we did not know our band width from our modem. The sixteen-year-olds in any household became a valuable and needed resource that helped us through this painful experience.

The TV crew followed this particular social bubble in Dudley, as they returned to school after lockdown. Stability was never guaranteed as students led a type of 'yo-yo' existence with in-school learning balanced with the on-line experience when Covid hit and they had to be sent home. We met Callum, a talented footballer who dreams of becoming a professional, playing for a top club. He admits that he needs a back-up plan and realises that an academic route is needed. Like most young men of his age, study and revision was not seen as cool, while girls were far more interesting! Self-proclaimed 'nerd', Aaminah is sociable but is focused on her ambition to be an architect: this can only be achieved, as she sees it, by having a strict revision regime. We witness the charismatic Sade being suspended for throwing her lunchtime baked potato at boys who labelled her and her mother as 'slags'—interestingly, it did not seem that the boys were punished for their bullying. As a black student growing up in area of deep deprivation, Sade is realistic to know that education is her passport to her chosen career as a prison psychologist.

Meeting the headteacher, Mrs Edward's-Wright helps us to appreciate the challenges faced by all school staff during the crisis. Covid protocols could change overnight: what was essential last week, might not be deemed important this week. Teachers had to teach students in their classroom and those who had to learn remotely. They spent hours preparing home packs for the many families who did not have access to the internet. Teachers had to teach in ways that even the best training programmes had not prepared them for. What this series helped us to understand was how a global pandemic affected an area of poverty. It helped us to realise how students can rise above negative expectations, based on race and social class. It introduced us to professionals who just want the very best for their students and will do all they can to see them achieve. Social inequality, coupled with a global pandemic, can make a difference, but young people need that reassurance and support from adults who care.

As we begin yet another school year, the new cohort of GCSE students will face a third school year of disruption and uncertainty. Will they face another lockdown? What happens if a student contacts Covid? Should they be vaccinated? Will they face public examinations in May? 'Sixteen: Class of 2021' is an attempt to help us appreciate the issues of our own sixteen-year-olds in our parishes, schools and families. We were all sixteen once, but we were never a sixteen-year-old growing up under a pandemic in 2021. We face an exciting, but complicated future, and we do well, as educators, to be confident in our young people and to have confidence in our own abilities. We do well to heed the words of Don Bosco:

Without confidence and love, there can be no true education. If you want to be loved…you must love yourselves, and make your children feel that you love them.

Written by Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB

Photo by Urmi (License: Creative Commons BY)

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