School’s Out – Ada Urbaniak

In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ada Urbaniak reflects on the pressures and strains of secondary school academia and life…

Speculation rose through the classroom days before the official announcement: that schools would soon close all across England in an effort to slow the transmission of COVID-19. And that this could be our last week, and in fact the end, of our compulsory education. On top of that, the cancellation of our exams. What we’ve been building up to for the last two years. Our teachers hammering into ours heads that they are only a year…six months…three months away. We better be ready. We better be organised.

Still, no one could have emotionally prepared us for the news that on 20th March 2020, it would be game over. The day before, we even received our summer exam timetables. For that last two days, most of my peers were huddled with their closest friends with puffy cheeks and red eyes. And there was I, dry-eyed and blank-faced, my shoulder relaxed, and free of tension for the first time in a long time. The sudden and new reality?  – I didn’t have to go into school anymore, ever again in fact, and that, I realised, meant a lot of good things.

The sudden and new reality?  – I didn’t have to go into school anymore, ever again in fact, and that, I realised, meant a lot of good things.

I’m in Year 13 (or was?). Sixth form was built up for me as a time in my formal education that would be a far better experience than secondary school. People said: everyone will be more mature, adult, it’ll be a nicer environment overall. Sure, we had our own six-form common room, and we even had a microwave (until it was broken, and locked behind the sixth-form canteen that was never open, but school staff shortages is a topic for another time).

But for me personally, I found my A-Level time at school affected my mental health hugely. This in turn made forming and maintaining friendships difficult, and so I felt very isolated in a building that held hundreds of people.

Before I go into why, it’s worth noting, I’m not alone. According to Action for Children’s survey of over 5000 young people attending UK secondary schools, one-third of 15 to 18-year olds are suffering from mental health issues. This means that in one classroom of 30 pupils, up to 10 could be having problems with their mental health. With competition between students, and exam, peer and friendship pressures, school can become a breeding ground for bad mental health. It can also exacerbate problems outside of school, such as a young person’s general self-esteem.

According to Action for Children’s survey of over 5000 young people attending UK secondary schools, one-third of 15 to 18-year olds are suffering from mental health issues. This means that in one classroom of 30 pupils, up to 10 could be having problems with their mental health.

Competition

School, has naturally, quite a competitive atmosphere. After every test my peers would be curious to know what marks others got, and sometimes I’d fall into this trap myself.  At different times in my schooling and right through to my A-levels, even teachers would get involved, announcing grades in front of whole classes. This is such a toxic mindset that’s not necessarily encouraged by teachers, but also not completely frowned upon either. A report by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that ‘excessive pressure to excel’ was one of the most harmful environmental factors in adolescents. This pressure primarily comes from academic and grade competition; from having to be ‘better’ than anyone else.  As Roosevelt said, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, and the only person we should be comparing ourselves to is ourselves.

Pressure

I’d say exam pressure was the most stressful element of school that came from both students and teachers alike; cramming in as many facts and techniques as your brain cells could handle, only to forget most of it the next day. I remember the frenzy in the sixth form common room before a practice exam, people hyperventilating over their notes last minute as they desperately tried to absorb every methods of calculus via osmosis. The smug-looking faces of ‘I have done every past paper ever’. The cool-as-a-cucumber students seemingly unphased by it all (at least that’s the impression that cultivated).

When A-level exams were actually cancelled, it felt like a massive weight lifted off my whole body. In truth, I, like many other A-level students around the country, didn’t put in the full 100% on my mock exams, (treating them as a learning curve to know where my biggest gaps in knowledge where with the intention to fill them before the final exams). Now, our classwork, completed before the pandemic, has become the core of what will give us our calculated grade. This has added a stress to my life that I never thought I’d have.

There’s been a suggestion of autumn exams and being able to sit them if we didn’t get the calculated grades needed, but with Results Day in mid-August it leaves very little time for anyone to revise if they realise on the day that they need to appeal their grades. Do I start revising now? How much should I do? What if it’s pointless? All these unanswered questions have left me anxious. The only comfort is knowing everyone is in the unknown for now, not just me.

Do I start revising now? How much should I do? What if it’s pointless? All these unanswered questions have left me anxious.

Friendships

Whilst the majority of young people enter the odd, new and overwhelming environment of secondary school with at least a couple of their friends, I enrolled with only one other person I vaguely knew.  Induction into the same sixth form as my secondary school was an even bigger challenge as friendship groups were already formed from secondary school. I changed my peer groups every year in secondary, desperate to form genuine and compassionate connections.

Alas, even in a surely-there-must-be-some-of-my-people environment, it’s hard to find those who are on the same wavelength as you. And sometimes, children and teens aren’t the nicest people either. We are still learning how to communicate properly, and there are many factors affecting our development from personal insecurities to a difficult homelife. All this hidden turbulence leaves everyone guarded too. It’s hard to find others like you.

Alas, even in a surely-there-must-be-some-of-my-people environment, it’s hard to find those who are on the same wavelength as you.

During the last couple of years of secondary school, I was in a friendship group where I would often be teased and felt like I was just ‘tagging along’. Although I wouldn’t class my personal experience as bullying, the words that were said to me then still sting me today. The charity ‘Ditch the Label’ conducted a survey in which they found out that one in five young people in the UK have been bullied in the past 12 months. And there are many ways to bully, from the barely visible online comments to outright verbal abuse.

Despite everything I’ve said…

I didn’t find all of school to be bad. I liked the structure that it gave my week, and that’s one of the things I miss most in this lockdown, having a dedicated space for my learning and revision. I’m still finding it difficult to have my home as a relaxing space and as a working space. On the flip side, being away from that environment and all the pressures and difficulties I’ve mentioned, I can honestly say it’s helped my mindset a lot. Working alone at home, I have no one to compare myself to. I have more time to revise, which I can really benefit from if I use it wisely.

I don’t think you can get rid of the negative side effects that come with school completely, but they can definitely be improved upon. The main problem is that it puts all students in the same box. We are all different and many students would prosper from different approaches, such as more support, an additional year, or more multi-sensory learning options. Discussing these extra options at the right times would be beneficial for many students; a recent survey by mentalhealth.org.uk shows that 6 out of 10 young people have felt so stressed by pressure to succeed, that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

Schools directly reaching out and offering more support, and not just serving it on the side, would help a lot. I often felt that if I wasn’t in a crisis situation, I would be wasting their time and that they wouldn’t listen to me properly. They need to get to us before this happens. An increase in PSHE lessons looking in more depth around mental health issues, awareness-raising, and strategies for look after our own mental help would be a welcome addition for everyone. Also knowing when we can seek out help and feeling we can and will be heard. At the end of the day, if it’s grades that are the overall concern for schools, then tackling mental health means better grades.

An increase in PSHE lessons looking in more depth around mental health issues, awareness-raising, and strategies for look after our own mental help would be a welcome addition for everyone.

Whatever I currently feel about school, and the lockdown, neither has affected my future plans too much because I didn’t apply to university for this September. That doesn’t mean I definitely won’t go, but it does mean my school experience overall has put me off institutionalised learning completely. Fortunately, it will certainly never put me off learning altogether, and after a year or two off, I might even have a go at university. I’d like to say one day, in the words of Mark Twain: ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”.

Ada Urbanik

Ada Urbanik is an 18-year-old writer living in Sheffield. They moved from Poland at a young age and have lived in England for most of their life. In 2019 they were shortlisted for the Columban Missonaries journalism competition, and for Hive’s Yorkshire Young Writers Competition. They’re keen on both fiction and non-fiction writing and poetry.  Follow them on Instagram @adaaurbaniak

Photos: no known copyright/public domain