A teenager says she has been forced to teach herself her GCSEs while shielding to protect her vulnerable mother because her school has not provided adequate resources.
Lana Collie-James, 16, began sitting her GCSE exams this week, like many young people her age. But unlike her classmates, she hasn’t been in school for nearly two years, as she doesn’t want to jeopardise the life of her mother, Anna, who has numerous health conditions.
Lana, who lives in Bournemouth and is a pupil at Glenmoor Academy, says she has been denied access to remote education from her school, which hasn’t recognised just how difficult it is for young people in her position.
“The last few years have been horrendously difficult,” she told i. “It’s been so hard trying to keep up with work when I haven’t been at school. I find it so frustrating that the school can’t or won’t recognise just how difficult it has been for young people like me.
“I just couldn’t risk bringing Covid home to my mum. I’ve done my best trying to learn on my own and I know that’s all I can do. But if Covid had not happened, or the school had helped, I know for sure I would be in a much better place now to take my exams. It makes me worry so much for the future and how my grades will affect my life.”
Anna James, Lana’s mother, has a weakened immune system due to taking immunosuppressants for bad lungs. She also has asthma, diabetes and ongoing heart issues.
Anna told i that all Lana has wanted to do since the start of the pandemic is to keep her mother safe. She says her daughter has been “massively let down” by the school and the education system.
“Lana has been denied the education she deserves,” she said. “She has spent almost two years trying to teach herself all nine of her GCSEs.
“Ever since the pandemic began, all we wanted was to keep safe. Lana didn’t want to risk losing her mum and couldn’t risk bringing Covid home.”
Lana did return to school for a few weeks after her mother was vaccinated and while protections such as face masks and bubbles were in place during the summer of 2021.
However, when Covid cases shot up following the withdrawal of measures, Lana says she had little choice but to return to home learning.
“It is an impossible decision because education is highly important,” said Anna. “All Lana is trying to do is protect her mum and I feel a lot of parental guilt.”
Anna says the best time for Lana was “during the worst time for everyone else”, when full Covid lockdowns meant she had remote access to every class and all her friends were online with her.
Since then, Anna says Lana has had limited access to resources. When the family asked if Lana could join lessons remotely from home, the school said it wouldn’t work as if they offered her this facility, other children would ask for it as well.
“I have been threatened with prosecution and fines for Lana not attending school,” she said. “At one point, the school suggested I take Lana off the school register until the pandemic was over.
“But I didn’t want to do this and to take Lana out of the system so close to GCSEs and my personal view was that the school just wanted to make their attendance figures look better.”
Anna says Lana has been trying her best to teach herself her GCSEs with what she can find online. She has had access to homework apps for each subject and a few teachers have sent her some resources.
The school offered Lana a small number of one-to-one revision sessions but the family ultimately hired a tutor to help with one of Lana’s trickier subjects, maths.
Lana is currently sitting her GCSEs at school in a separate room with one or two other students and an invigilator.
“I was not able to home school Lana, as there are a lot of costs and you have to pay privately for GCSEs and resources,” said Ms James. “I have already had to pay for some things like the maths tutor and some text books.
“We did ask if Lana could drop a couple of GCSE subjects, but the school was not keen on that.
“This has all had a massive impact on Lana. She is an intelligent girl and wants to be in education and if the pandemic hadn’t happened, she would be in a good position.
“Instead, she is worrying about her grades and the impact on her future and how all this will affect her life chances.”
Lara Wong, spokesperson for the Clinically Vulnerable Families support group, told i that children in vulnerable households who have shielded and isolated to protect loved ones have missed out on face-to-face education and, even now, are being denied learning and life chances.
“While exam adjustments have been made for the 2022 cohort as a whole due to lockdown disruptions, those weeks of online learning were the best weeks of learning offered to some of our children,” she said.
“Children who have shielded and isolated the most have been forgotten. The needs of children in high risk clinically vulnerable families have been completely ignored.
“We have been told to return to classrooms which we all know are breeding grounds for Covid infections.
“According to Department for Education guidance, children are not even allowed to test for any symptoms unless a medical professional has advised them to do so.
“Consequently, children like Lana have been excluded from education and the Government is now calling them ‘ghost children’ – a distasteful term for a child whose life is at risk or who may become a Covid orphan.”
Clinically Vulnerable Families told i that according to estimates, 124,000 children are severely absent from school, which includes those who are clinically vulnerable themselves or those who have a high risk member in their household.
“We are concerned that there is a lack of quality granulated data on these children especially when you consider the serious impacts to learning and life chances for those excluded from the schooling system due to a medical condition,” said Ms Wong.
A spokesperson for Glenmoor Academy said: “During the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, we worked hard to deliver a full remote curriculum for our students and we were extremely proud of their dedication, as well as that of staff, through what were difficult circumstances for many.
“As educators, however, we do not believe that remote education can ever replace the benefits of being in school; not just in terms of students’ academic progress but in the social interactions they have missed out on during periods of lockdown.
“The Government’s guidance in March 2021 was that all children of compulsory school age should return to school unless isolating from a positive test, or a close contact, and we have since seen the positive impact that returning to in-person learning has had on our young people.
“In welcoming students and staff back, we followed the Government’s advice and guidelines at all times and maintained comprehensive Covid hygiene and safety measures.
“We have of course worked with individual students and their families to address any specific challenges they have faced with getting back to school, including in some cases offering support such as additional tuition and alternative access arrangements.
“In all cases, however, any students not attending school would receive at least weekly contact from school staff and support with revision and catch-up as we seek to enable them to return to school full time.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The best place for a child to learn is in the classroom with inspirational teachers, and we know that the higher a child’s achievement, the higher their school attendance is likely to have been.
“As we learn to live with Covid, thanks to the success of the vaccination programme, there is no longer advice for vulnerable people to shield and it is right that children attend school full time as the best place for their development and wellbeing.
“We recognise young people sitting exams have faced disruption, which is why we have worked with Ofqual to put in place a range of adaptations – including advance information on some exam content – to maximise fairness and support students.”