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Analogies help us when we try to explain things and, with so much to explain at the moment, it’s understandable that we have heard so many analogies applied to Covid-19 and the measures we are taking to contain it and to beat it. I wonder which analogies you have grasped at to make sense of what’s facing you, your loved ones, you colleagues, your work.

Knowing my running routines, a lot of my friends have used race analogies to shed light on how they are feeling in this pandemic or how things are playing out for their families in our encounters online. We are used to the ‘it’s not a sprint but a marathon’ line we take when talking to pupils in exam years, or the importance of ‘limbering up for the final straight’; a colleague relayed a conversation he’d had with his doctor wife that we shouldn’t be thinking of our experience of the virus as a marathon but rather as a steeple chase with an unknowable number of water jumps to be hurdled. Certainly there’s nothing much final about the straight we appear to be in.

We are ten days into the second bout of Highgate at Home. Having adjusted to the last-minute decision to move teaching online, we are all reflecting on what it means, particularly for those pupils who would have been chained to their desks preparing for exams. These national tests would have been, in every case, the biggest academic, and for many, the most significant personal challenge in their young lives, a rite of passage to exciting choices, keenly-awaited freedoms and burgeoning independence. Prizes for which the price paid is hard work, curtailed free time and adrenalin-producing encounters with shadowy examiners tasked to test the next generation’s skill, knowledge, dexterity and stamina.

Back to analogy. For Year 11 and 13 pupils, it’s as though they were to run a marathon where their race time mattered beyond all else, but without the opportunity to complete the distance on race day. As if the race time needed to be determined by other means and in ways yet to be defined: performance in training runs or cross-training yet to be done? Different distance races to be held, but not of marathon length and not yet scheduled? Monitoring of fitness in the preparation time remaining – weigh ins? Heart rate? VO2? All runners know that the training we do, for a race or not, is good for our health and our running performance, and that any and all exercise has its benefits and its enjoyment, but what training to choose? And how to find the motivation to get up early and put in the miles in the cold, the dark, the rain? Oh, and by the way, no outdoor training allowed: it has to be on a treadmill on your own. Of course, you can make progress, get fitter, even race-fit, but you’d be forgiven for wanting to, well, throw in that towel and head for the couch.

No one blames the race-organisers, but we all know it’s a bit rubbish. And, away from the analogy, where does it leave our academic athletes?

Rest assured, outcomes will be determined and, as consensus and compromise emerge over the coming weeks, as politicians, exam boards, schools and civil servants work up the least-bad option for assessing our children fairly, teachers across the country will make it happen, not least here. For sixth formers, universities will want and will need to make a crisis system work; for Year 11s, GCSEs will be awarded in ratios that reflect the grades hammered out last year, and universities will know (and be required to know) that they will have to read the GCSE grades for the Class of 2023 differently in making decisions about entry. There will be opportunity for great learning, too.

However valid criticism may be of our GCSE arrangements or our A level system, the well-established, familiar routines gave young people invaluable motivation, method, challenge and purpose: take it all away, and add in lockdown, isolation from peers and all the jazz and buzz that comes from sparring with your mates, and (forgive the analogic hyperbole) hologramic representation of teachers in endless Zoom tunnels, and we must expect confusion, emotional turbulence, perplexity, frustration, anxiety, anger and more.

We need to meet them where they are today, and to acknowledge that they will be reassured by nothing other than the one thing which the nation’s politicians, exam boards, schools and civil servants cannot yet give: certainty. They are going to be living in discombobulating limbo, in an airless vacuum, albeit a short-lived one.

And this is where those of us who have no answers to give and few levers to pull – parents, carers, teachers, godparents, grandparents – have to come in. While we await the certainties which will come our teenagers’ way, we can offer an alternative certainty to refurnish that limbo and fill that vacuum: that we are here to listen, to take on board and to absorb. We will help them make the best of what, anxiety and uncertainty aside, could, will, be a great experience. Without the structures and contrasts of school life – journeys to school, walks to lunch and back; school days on, weekends home; breaks and lunchtimes; sport and hobbies – they need alternatives, just as we do, and they need convincing that the alternatives, while obviously ersatz, needn’t be lesser copies of a real thing. We have to get ourselves away from the screen, out of the home, moving about, chatting at meal times, reading a book (and talking about it), trying the crossword and the sudoku, listening to music, jiving in the kitchen, cooking crazy new meals or indulging in our favourites. And talking, lamenting, complaining, whingeing even. School must play its part, keeping the flow of information coming, and inviting our disoriented, would-be examinees to say what works and what doesn’t, being as nimble in the way we adapt to how they feel as we were in the way we adapted to how we learn online.

As a dad and as a head I wish I had those ready-made, take-away certainties that aren’t ours to give, but we do have one certainty about what I, what we, can do: like everything else in this pandemic it’s having to take a different shape and, while I am surprised to be calling the next generation of Pettitts to order and to daily walks and to mealtimes and to conversations and away from the screen oblivion, it’s what I need to do. It’s also my way of showing love, and yours too. Good luck, stay safe, keep well, keep walking, keep talking.

About the author
Adam Pettitt, Head
Adam has been Head of Highgate since 2006. He was previously Head of Modern Languages at Abingdon School and then Deputy Head at Norwich School. He read French and German at university and continues to teach both subjects to Y9 pupils at Highgate. Beyond work, Adam enjoys running marathons and is a recent convert to inter-railing.