After GCSEs: My New Reality

Poppy Stowell-Evans gives a first hand account of the effect of GCSE cancellations on Year 11 pupils

Being in self-isolation – my younger sister having suspected coronavirus symptoms – I already felt extremely anxious, trapped and scared because of this uncertain version of my new reality.

Then came the announcement that GCSE and A level exams were being cancelled in the summer of 2020 and that schools across the country would be shut until further notice. An announcement made initially with no plan or insight into how pupils would be awarded grades. 

As a Year 11 pupil, this meant that I would no longer be sitting the majority of my GCSE exams. It is almost impossible to articulate how many thoughts and emotions were rushing through my body. I sat – frozen – concerned about what this would mean for my future. 

Similarly to many of my peers, initially, I felt a massive sense of relief. The announcement confirmed that I would no longer have to face the trepidation of exam season during the peak of Welsh summer. Gone were the late nights and early morning revision sessions. My coloured pens would be able to finally retire to the bottom of my pencil case. 

I would no longer have to listen to the anxious reminders from my teachers that we only had three, two, one week left until our first exam, and best of all, I could finally turn the French subtitles off Netflix. I would enjoy RuPaul’s Drag Race without the reminder of key auxiliary verbs.

Unfortunately, the blissful relief that came with this interpretation of my new reality didn’t last forever. Very soon a dark cloud began to hang over me and so many of my peers. Almost collectively, we realised that our time in school had essentially ended. Not just our school year – our whole high school life had essentially ended. And it ended so abruptly. 

Unknowingly, shielded by naivety and our version of ‘normality’, we had had our last English lesson; our last giggle over teenage gossip in the drama classroom at lunch; our last assembly; our last time seeing our closest friends every day. 

This acknowledgement opened the floodgates to a tsunami of more realisations and new losses.

Very soon a dark cloud began to hang over me and so many of my peers. Almost collectively, we realised that… our whole high school life had essentially ended

I consider myself to be a hardworking and conscientious pupil. I would constantly ask my teachers how to improve. I would revise on family holidays, at running competitions and even on Christmas Day. This often resulted in my Mum growing concerned and worried that I was ‘doing too much’, but nevertheless I persisted.

Whilst this trait was not always regarded very highly by my fellow pupils, my determination pushed me. I was eager to prove my ability to myself and to everyone else, driven to break stereotypes and misconceptions wrongfully formed about my school and my postcode. 

So, while this all may seem trivial to a bystander, the cancellation of exams stole this opportunity from me and a multitude of other young people. In my school, we want to break stereotypes and prove our capability. 

It has stolen the opportunity for many of us to feel as though we have truly achieved our grades. It has stolen the opportunity for us to prove to our teachers that their hard work and dedication was worth it, that we could make them proud. 

It was almost a month before I began to accept this new version reality. The situation is completely out of my control – it’s out of anyone’s control. 

We finally received an announcement about how our grades would be fairly reached; I could begin to move on. 

While I felt anxious about my future in education, others felt anxious for their future in employment… While I was anxious about how my GCSEs would be graded, NHS staff and those in the social work sector, like my Nan, were scared for their lives

On Easter Sunday, through tears and lots of support from my mum (and far too many chocolate eggs), I finally packed away my mass of revision resources and school books. While this felt surreal, it provided a liberation that allowed me to step into a new part of my life. 

Now my determination is now being channelled into A Level study and supporting the people and community around me in any way I can. 

I know though that my loss is miniscule compared to the loss of many others in my city, country and the world. While I cried at the cancellation of Leavers’ Day, others were crying at the loss of a loved one. While I felt anxious about my future in education, others felt anxious for their future in employment and ability to provide for their family. While I was scared and anxious about how my GCSEs would be graded, NHS staff and those in the social work sector, like my Nan, were scared for their lives, working on the front line – saving lives through risking theirs: a result of years of below par funding and insufficient PPE stocks.

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Whilst COVID-19 has guaranteed uncertainty and change, it has taught me – as a young person – important lessons. 

I have learnt to value my privilege. To value that I am lucky enough to have a garden and to live in a house where I feel safe and loved. I have learnt that everyone’s emotions are valid and that occasionally pain must be felt, that it can not be avoided.

It has taught me that kindness and selflessness are tools to make the world a brighter place. But, most significantly, it has taught me to appreciate the beauty in ordinary things and the people around me. 

COVID-19 is an indiscriminate disease. Anyone can be affected by its ruthless presence regardless of race, religion, gender, wealth. At this time, we need to appreciate our equality through similarity and praise those who have been forgotten for far too long. 

As the American playwright John Guare once said: ‘It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.’

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Poppy Stowell-Evans is a pupil at Llanwern High School, Newport. She's an ardent feminist and is a strong advocate for equality, social justice and human rights. She is also a passionate climate change activist and considers herself as an internationalist, believing countries should work together where beneficial.

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