Class of 2020: The impact of coronavirus on education in Sheffield

In a rapid response to Covid-19, schools and colleges in Sheffield were forced to close in March bringing life in education to a sudden halt for thousands of students across the city.

Thursday, 2nd July 2020, 12:00 pm

The abrupt closures were painfully hard for many of the young people within these educational establishments – particularly those in Year 11 who had been preparing for GCSEs, as well as final year college students and Year 13s who would have sat their A-level exams and transitioned to universities over the summer.

After some uncertainty, The Sheffield College along with secondary schools across the city worked quickly to adapt by moving lessons, and even some assessments, online to bring some sense of normality during these unprecedented times.

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Sheffield Collge City Campus.

Exams, however, have been widely cancelled bringing about the possibility that the closures may not just cause a short-term issue, but may also have long-term consequences for the affected cohorts in terms of higher education offers and future job prospects.

Students who were due to sit exams and assessments will instead be awarded calculated grades by exam boards which are based on teacher assessments, as well as a pupil’s previous attainment.

Izzy Hawksworth is a Level 3 journalism student at The Sheffield College and had some of her assessments and an exam cancelled due to the pandemic.

“I was meant to take my maths GCSE this year because I failed it last year by one mark but obviously that was cancelled,” Izzy, aged 17, said. “Then for our journalism course, we had our FMP to do, which we started in February and in May we got told that was going to be cancelled.

Izzy Hawksworth, a Level 3 Journalism student at The Sheffield College

“We did all that work towards our final grade and to find out we weren’t aren’t getting anything from that was quite annoying especially if we get a grade that doesn’t live up to the work we did.

“Obviously there’s also a bit of uncertainty because if we don’t do as well as we thought we would have done, then it won’t be good for university applications.”

Some school leaders though don’t forsee the coronavirus-induced interruptions having much of a long-term impact on their students.

Kerry English, assistant principal for the Creative and Design Faculty at The Sheffield College, said: “I don’t think it will have a long-term negative impact.

Kelly English, Assistant Principal for the Creative and Design Faculty which includes creative, design and performing arts, journalism, media make-up, hair and beauty and catering and hospitality at The Sheffield College

“The college has worked really closely with the awarding bodies to make sure that we follow all of their guidance, where they’ve given it to adapt assessments or where it’s been necessary to bring students back in to complete their assessments we’ve done that.

“Starting last week, and over the next few weeks, we've got students coming in to finish off practical assessments and in terms of delivery, that’s continued from day one of closure so they’ve not missed out on any instruction, tuition, or anything they would have had had they been physically in the building.

“This way of working, not just for the college but nationally, has given the students a lot of experiences that they wouldn’t have had because the staff have really drawn on their industry and professional contacts.

“For example, in performing arts the students created vlogs of their lives in lockdown and one of the lecturers pulled together a panel to review those – that was Phil Collinson, who has been director and producer on Eastenders, Doctor Who and programmes like that, and journalists from the BBC.

King Ecgbert School headteacher Paul Haigh pictured before the coronavirus pandemic with students Mellisa Lazenby, Haseeb Ahmad and Liana Ahmed

“Because they're also working remotely or from home they’ve got the time they can spare for us on a Zoom meeting.”

Paul Haigh, headteacher of King Ecgbert School, echoed that message: “Obviously this is all regrettable what has happened but in terms of the timing of when our school shut down, for Year 11 and Year 13 it was the least of my worries because we’ve got such sophisticated data systems and we'd done all our mock exams.

“And, while mock exams aren’t the real thing and they don't perform in the way they would in summer, we’ve got so many years worth of data we know exactly what they translate into in the summer so every year in March I can predict our summer results.

“Year in year out our predictions have proven to be very accurate and I’m very confident we’ve been able to give very fair predictions to the exam board, so in terms of qualifications, I don’t think they’re going to be disadvantaged.”

It is clear that the affected cohort of final-year students will be entering a jobs market and world which has been turned upside down by the pandemic – something which could impact young people for years to come.

Mr Haigh explained: “The wider impact is that right of passage for Year 11 and Year 13, finishing their education and going out into the wider world, but it’s a very uncertain world. Year 13s going to university don’t know whether they’ll be physically in lecture theatres or whether it’ll be learning online, similarly with college places and so on.

Firth Park Academy Principal Dean Jones and pupils

“I’m actually more worried about the year groups that come below them, what does worry is an economic downturn and companies not expanding and taking on new staff. That will always affect new entrants to the job market the least well-qualified. That’s the worry for this generation.”

The skills learned by students who have coped with lockdown though could help them in years to come, according to Dean Jones, principal of Firth Park Academy.

“For our Class of 2020, there has been a particular focus on providing online content that will support the next steps they take and to strengthen their employability,” he said.

“We have set up a virtual careers advice help desk which offers support to students and parents in this transition time and still be available to them as alumni.

“We are also putting in place plans for a safe and socially distanced exam results day that is open for all students. This is a life-defining moment during which we want to be there as a Firth Park Family to celebrate achievements and offer advice in response to the outcomes students receive.

“Looking ahead, the importance of role models and mentoring is greater than ever. We will be working hard to maintain the relationships and connections between Class of 2020 leavers and our school despite the physical separation caused by lockdown.

“Adaptability and transferable skills are so crucial for future employability: students who have learned the flexibility and self-discipline required to maintain online learning are in a far stronger place to offer skills required in future workplaces.

“Those with the confidence to communicate and the insight for problem-solving will also flourish. There will continue to be opportunities for all students who are both big-hearted and brave.”

Sarah Sims, headteacher of Silverdale School, added: “Our sixth form students worked so hard for these qualifications and some were particularly upset about not having the chance to prove themselves in their final exams. So it’s been important to provide them with the information they need to prepare themselves for their next steps in life.

“We have sent them a regular university and UCAS update each week and are gearing up for results day – when we will be providing both telephone and online support, calling on the expertise of our UCAS Co-ordinator, Careers Advisor and wider sixth form team.

“We are sorry that they have missed out on the normal rite of passage at the end of their school career, but we hope to find a way to celebrate with them in the not so distant future and want them to stay in touch with us, keeping us updated of their progress.”

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Sarah Sims, headteacher of Silverdale School (picture: