STUDENT BLOG: What next for the lockdown generation?

Far from being part of a damaged generation, defined by their experience of the pandemic, ELIZABETH CALLAND-BROOKE reports on how our A-level students have demonstrated a positive approach as they rise to the challenges ahead

I HAVE heard this year’s A-level students labelled in the media the ‘stinted generation’, the generation of ‘hindered social development’, and the generation who will be ‘left behind’, but how accurate are these assumptions? Have this year's post-school students really been left behind, or are they further ahead?

I went into the lockdown with my sights set on an autumn 2021 university entrance to study something to do with science or medicine. But now, as the curtains close on my school career, my perspective is completely different.

I want to take a gap year to pursue different short courses and work experiences and determine a more actively creatively job. I came to this realisation in the second lockdown, and feel it was that time away from the everyday pressures of school life that allowed for a serious evaluation of my choices. Were they really what I wanted?

Around 27,500 UK students chose to defer their entrance to university in 2020, with 41 per cent saying they chose to defer in order to learn important life skills, 21 per cent desiring a break from studying, 16 per cent to earn money, nine per cent to gain work experience and nine per cent taking a gap year for ‘other’ reasons.

It is important to note that changing your mind about your career path and taking a year to consider it probably comes under ‘other’. This year, most of the RGS students I spoke who are taking gap years are doing it for this reason exactly; either their original plans fell through, or they have changed their minds.

So, I set out to see if I was just being indecisive, or if there really is a trend reflected in my generation’s choices and the time we’ve spent in lockdown, and the results really did astound me.

According to the sixth form team, our year group seems to be following similar trends to previous years, with head of sixth form Mr Fell telling me: “It doesn't feel to us that this year's students are either more, or less confident on their plans for the future. As a cohort there are a very similar number of applications and deferrals (of course this may change closer to results day and many of the decisions made have been formed at home during lockdown) but it feels quite reassuring to us that the year group does not seem to have been massively affected either way at this stage of applications. We have not had many students coming to us with massive changes of plans.”

Both major and minor changes have been made to students’ options this year, thanks to the lockdown, so we have been given the time to evaluate our choices thoroughly, without being swept away by the process of trying to achieve the goals we originally had in mind.”

Of the 44 upper sixth form students I spoke to, 30 of them told me they had changed their minds about their immediate plans upon leaving school, with 14 of these students saying this decision was affected by the time they spent in lockdown.

Many students expressed a change in heart about the degree they would study at university: “I had no clue what I wanted to do. I thought about physiology, and now I’m doing astrophysics,” said one.

Others had a complete change of heart as to how they’d enter their dream job: “I just don’t think university is the road for me anymore,” and, “I wanted to go to uni but I realised I’d much rather do an apprenticeship and go straight in to the workplace.” And some have completely re-evaluated what they want in life: “I was going to be a doctor, but now I want to make films!”.

A significant number of the students I spoke to decided simply that they wanted a gap year prior to going to university. The consensus among students is that they have been given more time to think through and ensure that the university they have chosen is one that they feel passionate about attending.

Alongside this change which seems big to us as individuals, the sixth form team has noticed other ways in which lockdown has affected students.As Mr Fell told me:“Whilst some students have certainly demonstrated much greater independence in finding work experience and opportunities for themselves, as well as managing workload, others have found this really hard, and we have had a lot more conversations to support students with a host of issues than in previous years.

“Lockdown has affected students' mental state more negatively as a whole. There are the benefits for some of practising independent study skills, etcetera, but I think most educationalists would say that lockdown has had a profoundly negative experience on both students and staff in terms of their mental health.”

His advice to students taking time to reconsider their future is: “You are doing exactly the right thing to step back and take the time to consider things if you are not ready to make decisions. You shouldn't be afraid of taking time and advice - this is always better than committing yourself if you really aren't sure.”

So how will this benefit us going forward? I can’t really say I know – the things we’ve been through have been more proof than necessary that nothing can be predicted. What I can say, with confidence, is that if we are allowed to spend more time on reaching conclusions about our futures, we can emerge into adulthood without that feeling of a loss of a sense of direction.

While some may argue that we have been left in the darkness by the lockdown, there is clearly a consensus among students which suggests this is not the case. For all students who are reconsidering their futures, going forward carefully, or just jumping straight in, I urge you to remember the advice offered by the sixth form team: “You shouldn’t be afraid”.