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NI school leavers' rite of passage has been denied them by coronavirus outbreak... but teachers and friends are just awe-inspiring


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Challenging: Emma McAlister

Challenging: Emma McAlister

Anxieties: Emma McAlister and her brother Stuart

Anxieties: Emma McAlister and her brother Stuart

Determined: Ciara Rooney studying at home

Determined: Ciara Rooney studying at home

Ciara and fellow pupil Clodagh Bogues fundraising for Covid-19 Crisis

Ciara and fellow pupil Clodagh Bogues fundraising for Covid-19 Crisis

Ciara Rooney speaking at WIB Chairs’ Lunch, Titanic

Ciara Rooney speaking at WIB Chairs’ Lunch, Titanic

Keelan Sloan studying at home

Keelan Sloan studying at home

Jack Kelly and Keelan Sloan

Jack Kelly and Keelan Sloan

Keelan Sloan with Sir Patrick Coghlin

Keelan Sloan with Sir Patrick Coghlin

Challenging: Emma McAlister

Following the cancellation of exams due to the coronavirus pandemic, with pupils instead receiving predicted grades, three Upper Sixth A-Level students write about what this has meant for them and the rollercoaster of emotions they experienced.

'It’s a weird anti-climax, leaving us all feeling confused'

Emma McAlister (18), a pupil at Larne Grammar School, is hoping to study Dentistry

Those on the outside may see it as an elongated summer - something to be happy and excited about; no exams, no stress, no homework. The reality for thousands of A-Level students this year is that we are now in a haze of uncertainty about what our futures could hold. For many, the next few years were planned out through the options of university, higher education or apprenticeships - most of which is now on the line.

I should have sat my first exam on Tuesday, a Biology practical paper. It's so surreal that the Easter holidays which I had planned to spend studying turned into two weeks of keeping myself entertained inside the house. Spending from September gearing up for exams which would determine our paths in life, to nothing. It's a weird anti-climax, leaving everyone feeling confused and worried.

With limited knowledge of how our exam grades will be calculated, it makes me anxious for those who didn't excel last year and had plans to shine this exam season. This could mean they must take a year out if they have to resit these exams, redo their applications, attend their interviews again and hope to obtain another offer for the university or course of their choice. For the authorities to even call these resits is strange; how can you resit something that you haven't actually sat in the first place? This major setback could ultimately lead to them missing out on their dream course and, therefore, alter their path for the future.

These thoughts are enough to keep anyone up at night - no matter how well they have previously done. The most important thing for us all to remember is that despite not knowing our results right now, we would not have known them at this stage normally, either.

It is not just the exams that we missed out on. A lot of us grieve about all of the things we spent seven years watching the school leavers do. We didn't get a proper last day (48 hours' notice makes things difficult to plan) consisting of teacher pranks, leavers' breakfast, picnic in the playing fields, slip-and-slides, receiving our leavers' hoodies or a proper leavers' assembly.

These are things which on the surface seem so little but yet we still didn't get. Although, despite our lack of time, we managed to plan our off timetable last day with tea and biscuits in place of our breakfast and a makeshift leavers' assembly - it might be the most memorable leavers' day for all of the teachers involved. Hopefully in August, all being well, we might find some way to celebrate our results - even if it is just a year-wide Skype call.

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Anxieties: Emma McAlister and her brother Stuart

Anxieties: Emma McAlister and her brother Stuart

Anxieties: Emma McAlister and her brother Stuart

It is not only A-Level students who are feeling the pressure; I am not at all jealous of those who were due to be sitting their GCSE or AS-Level examinations. My brother, Stuart, now has an anxious wait to find out what he has achieved in his GCSEs and I worry for him going into Lower Sixth next year with little previous experience of sitting high-pressure school exams where there really is something on the line in terms of success or failure. For those now going into Upper Sixth, it will start to pile on the pressure for next year's examinations as their A2 exams will now make up the entire assessment.

Through these challenging times, I must commend my teachers who have still been working as hard as ever despite the circumstances, whether that be teaching through videos, helping us to complete our notes or just being there to take any of our questions or being a support to us. These resources can hopefully be a pillow to soften the blow to those of us who may have to reconsider our plans for September, to allow us to reach our full potential. Fingers crossed!

'Our incredible teachers are truly going the extra mile'

Ciara Rooney (18), a pupil at Assumption Grammar, Ballynahinch, is hoping to study Modern Languages

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Determined: Ciara Rooney studying at home

Determined: Ciara Rooney studying at home

Determined: Ciara Rooney studying at home


As an enthusiastic Year 8 pupil, I was so proud to sport my blue uniform for the first time as I hopped aboard the bus to Assumption Grammar School. Years later, I found myself decorating it with the gleaming 'Head Girl' badge that has been passed down through scores of inspirational women since the school was founded in 1933. For me, school is about much more than simply working towards an exam.

During my time at Assumption, I discovered a passion for languages and have been constantly encouraged by my wonderful teachers to pursue this love further. With their support, I decided that I would spend a year working and studying abroad before heading off to begin my university career. Today's reality is a complete contradiction to the months of learning and culture - and, of course, a scandalous amount of paella - that I had planned.

I realise that my gap year is the least of my worries for the time being. I have the rest of my life to spend a year living the luminous Spanish lifestyle of fiestas and siestas. However, I will only leave school once - and if there is one aspect of school life at Assumption that stands out the most, it's our commitment to upholding traditions. Every Assumption girl spends seven years looking forward to the leavers' celebration day where we hire bouncy castles, order an extravagant amount of pizza and laugh and cry as we share our fondest memories with those teachers that we could now call friends. Our leavers' Mass is an emotional evening as we bring closure to our journey at Assumption. The banquet stands as our excuse to get dressed up, enjoy a meal and, for those brave enough, to dance the night away.

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Ciara and fellow pupil Clodagh Bogues fundraising for Covid-19 Crisis

Ciara and fellow pupil Clodagh Bogues fundraising for Covid-19 Crisis

Ciara and fellow pupil Clodagh Bogues fundraising for Covid-19 Crisis

During the early days of self-isolation, we soon realised that this farewell was unlikely. My year group was truly heartbroken that we had spent our final day in Assumption without knowing it. However, I can't say that it was a bad end to our time there. Myself and other Year 14 girls spent our last day helping pensioners amid fears of panic-buying and food shortages. With the generosity of the school community, we had several dozen care packages made up. This reflects the spirit of Assumption.

Learning at home is possible. We live in a society where our teachers and classmates are an email away. I can continue to prepare for university thanks to the efforts of my incredible teachers as they provide endless learning resources and even lead online classes. One of my Spanish teachers, Carla, is still doing one-to-one conversation classes with me after returning home to her family in Spain. Our teachers are truly going the extra mile.

It will be strange receiving results for an exam that we never sat. However, we must view this time as an opportunity to learn for the pure enjoyment of it. I've delved into the works of both classic and contemporary French authors. I've got completely hooked on a thrilling Spanish series. The Irish language community across the island has co-ordinated countless conferences for young people to meet together and share ideas.

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Ciara Rooney speaking at WIB Chairs’ Lunch, Titanic

Ciara Rooney speaking at WIB Chairs’ Lunch, Titanic

Ciara Rooney speaking at WIB Chairs’ Lunch, Titanic

As well as this chance to expand my knowledge, lockdown has inspired me to try new things. Not only have I mastered the perfect loaf of banana bread, but I just ran my first 5k - without stopping once! With a positive attitude, we can turn this period of uncertainty into an opportunity for self-growth.

Life had become a cycle of late-night studying for early morning exams, all in an effort to achieve a grade - a grade that, in no way, defines who we are as people.

What you can't really achieve at home is the unique sense of community that is Assumption. While the efforts from both students and staff to stay connected have been awe-inspiring, the buzz of school life simply can't be replaced. I miss my friends. However, we are keeping our spirits up. This will pass. Our day to laugh and cry and eat pizza on bouncy castles together will come. All in due time.

'Everyone misses their friends, we try to keep in touch'

Keelan Sloan (18), a pupil at Royal Belfast Academical Institution, is hoping to study Physics

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Keelan Sloan with Sir Patrick Coghlin

Keelan Sloan with Sir Patrick Coghlin

Keelan Sloan with Sir Patrick Coghlin


I am ... was ... Head of School at RBAI. During these unprecedented times, the correct tense truly remains a mystery. I study Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths for A-Level and intend to study Physics at Durham University next year. My true love for science came from the scientific method and how we can accurately predict how our natural world evolves and progresses while obeying physical laws that we can write on a whiteboard. Uncertainty, which you can argue is inevitable, is a problem for scientists and so naturally I think all scientists are anxious during these uncertain times.

Much of my worry centred around my A-Levels and, like all of us, I have been through a rollercoaster of emotion in this regard. When I heard the news that exams where cancelled I didn't know how to feel. I went through the full spectrum of feeling happy, then worried, then disappointed, then I settled on worried again. Immediately I felt completely out of control of what happened next in my own life. My entire application to Durham hinged on my grades - will my assigned grades be good enough? I truly have faith in my teachers' professional judgment and I can only hope that the work I have put in throughout the year is reflected in my assigned grades.

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Keelan Sloan studying at home

Keelan Sloan studying at home

Keelan Sloan studying at home

The lack of exams has left our studies very open-ended. There is no closure, no goal to work towards and very little motivation to pick up a textbook. Recently, I have focused on reading ahead for university and attempting to grasp a loose understanding of some of the new material that awaits me. However, what was on my mind was the lack of closure.

Throughout the seven years I had become attached to my school in a way I couldn't have imagined. Suddenly I began to miss the little things, walking through the front doors, the sausage rolls at the Sixth Form centre and even just putting on the blazer. My time at Inst has been nothing short of amazing and so the sudden departure leaves me with too many people still to thank. I hope to still have a leavers' day when this nightmare is over where I can truly say my goodbyes to this memorable community.

Among my friends the feeling has been mixed - some people are delighted as the dreaded exam pressure has been released, others worried as this was the time to bring their grades up after focusing on other commitments, and some stressing about their offers. The general underlying trend is that everyone misses their friends. We have all been trying to keep in touch as much as possible. In fact, each week we host a pub quiz on Zoom featuring rounds from current affairs to quotes from the friend group. This was a genius idea. Rather than sitting chatting, we have been joking around, teasing and inevitably getting competitive trying to stop the same person winning every week. Regardless, this is a way for us to come together and have a bit of fun while trying to keep sane in this strange time.

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Jack Kelly and Keelan Sloan

Jack Kelly and Keelan Sloan

Jack Kelly and Keelan Sloan

Not only the end of school but the start of university has the potential to be ruined. The infamous 'freshers' week hangs in the balance and the thought of starting this new chapter of life at university through a screen is very unsettling. What are we to do? Each of us can only do our part, pray that this crisis ends and normality can resume as quickly as possible.

What have I learnt in isolation? While maybe not as much as in school, one important thing I have learnt is that no matter the hardship, every community can always band together stronger and grow more fully as a collective.

Belfast Telegraph