education

Students make it to exams on time despite rail strike


Students held sleepovers with classmates, parents organised car-sharing rides and teachers drove minibuses to ensure that those affected by the national rail strike would make it to their exams on time on Tuesday.

With more than 280,000 pupils in England and Wales taking GCSE history in the morning and close to 90,000 students taking A-level maths on Tuesday afternoon, some of those relying on the rail network to reach their exam centres faced a difficult journey and relied on friends or family for help.

But school leaders and headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said they were not aware of students missing their exams because of the strike, although some centres used their flexibility to delay the start of exams held in the morning.

Siobhán Lowe, the headteacher of Tolworth girls school and sixth form in Surbiton, Kingston upon Thames, said: “We warned students and staff in advance so they were able to organise sleepovers and lifts.”

Schools in other parts of the country told exam candidates to get in touch if they were likely to face travel difficulties, and recruited parents to offer car rides through WhatsApp groups. Some schools used minivans to pick up pupils, although one school said no students took up their offer.

Pepe Diiasio, the head of Wales high school in Rotherham, said: “Our plan B was to send out a whole raft of minibuses to make sure we picked up students and got them in on time.”

Most heads said the day proceeded without difficulty. Robin Bevan, the headteacher of Southend high school for Boys, in Essex, said about 10% of his pupils depended on trains to get to school every day, including a “small number” taking GCSE and A-levels on Tuesday.

“All our exam candidates made suitable alternative arrangements to enable them to be in school in good time and ready to perform at their best,” Bevan said.

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National transport surveys suggest that only between 2% and 4% of secondary school pupils regularly travel by train to school.

A spokesperson for United Learning, an academy chain that includes 52 secondary schools throughout England, said they were not aware of any impact on its schools from the strike, as did a spokesperson for the Girls’ Day School Trust, which administers 25 independent and state schools in England and Wales.

The Department for Education told school leaders in England on Monday that they should “prioritise their spending to support their pupils and students and can consider making available funding for pupils and students who may require it”. But it said no additional funding was available.

But Sarah Hannafin, a senior policy adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We are concerned by the suggestion, made by the DfE, that schools are best placed to fund alternative methods of travel. This simply is not true, and schools have not been given the funding to do this. At a time when school budgets are stretched thin, this is simply not a viable suggestion for most.”

A teacher at a college in Portsmouth said: “We were already getting ready for this strike last week, and were able to identify some students who might struggle [to travel].” The college delayed exams scheduled for 9am by half an hour, to give students extra time to arrive – although two students turned up at 6.30am because they had no choice.

But the teacher said more of her students would face difficulties on Thursday, the second day of the strike, when large numbers will be taking physics or combined science GCSE papers.

With a tube strike also expected in London on Thursday, a portion of the 590,000 pupils taking the two GCSE papers, and the 54,000 sixth formers taking their final chemistry paper, may again face difficulties.

The combination of the two strikes mean some schools – especially primary schools in central London – may have to partially or fully close if staff can’t travel.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “If this has happened we would imagine the decision will have been made because not enough staff have been able to get to work for the school to be able to operate. The decision to close a school for in-person teaching is never made lightly and only happens when there is no other option.”



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