Cristina Bacalso, Researcher, Youth and Public Policies

“The attitude was, ‘we are going to decide everything and you are not important’,” recalls

18-year-old Maja Kalin. This is the way educational decisions were made in the early days of COVID-19 in her home country of Slovenia. “The government said from the very beginning, ‘the final exams are going to happen, and there is no question about this’.”

“It was obvious that it was spur of the moment – ‘we need to make a decision right now’,” says 20-year-old Ciara Fanning, recalling the quick changes made to the curriculum in Ireland back in March. “If you were actually able to talk to students before you made these decisions, you would’ve been able to feed in these worries before decisions were made.”

Both women capture the tension of upholding the right to participate with the right to be protected in an emergency. When decisions need to be made quickly to safeguard the health of people, what obligation is there for decision-makers to ensure people’s voices are heard, including those of young people? How do participation rights apply to education?

While the spread of COVID-19 is an unprecedented health crisis, it is also a crisis of education, primarily for young people. According to UNESCO, governments in 194 countries around the world mandated nationwide school closures in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, affecting 91.3% of learners across the globe, or over 1.5 billion students at the peak of school closures on 4 April 2020. Closures had knock-on effects for all types of school-related decisions, from new teaching formats like online methods to the deferment of end-of-year exams.

oth Kalin and Fanning are deeply invested in these educational decisions and the impact they have on the lives of students. Both are presidents of their national student unions, representing the entire secondary school population in their countries: Kalin, a new president who was just elected in October 2019 to Dijaška organizacija Slovenije (School Student Organisation of Slovenia), and Fanning, the outgoing president for Irish Second-Level Students’ Union.

“Our big concern was that they still had a huge amount of curriculum to cover before the term-end exams,” Fanning explains. “We have little to no continuous assessment [in Ireland], so it’s all really based on your performance in June. We were very worried about people not getting their curriculum finished and the exam papers had already been done up. What’s going to happen? There’s no way this exam can be done like normal.”

Slovenian students were similarly stressed about the gaps in their education in advance of their exams.

“There was a big question about the equality of all students – some didn’t have access to the internet or computers,” describes Kalin. “From the very beginning, the Ministry [of Education] was collecting computers for schools from different companies and charities. It was a big concern for them. I can’t say that all of it [was resolved], but there was a lot of effort put in to addressing it.”

Participation in a state of emergency

The right for people to have a say on and influence issues that affect them, otherwise known as participation, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in the Treaty of the European Union. Young people are no exception. The right to be heard is codified in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the convention, emphasises that even in emergency situations, young people should be “encouraged and enabled to participate in analysing their situation and future prospects. [Participation] helps them to regain control over their lives, contributes to rehabilitation, develops organizational skills and strengthens a sense of identity”. [CRC/C/GC/12, para. 125]

As elected representatives, both the School Student Organisation of Slovenia and the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union held large-scale surveys to canvass for student views on various COVID-19-related decisions. They asked their members about their main concerns, their needs and feedback on the situation as a whole, with a question on what to do with final exams in particular.

Even though Slovenia’s government announced early on in the crisis that the exams would go on as scheduled, the student organisation still held a survey asking whether students agreed with this.

“Some students weren’t happy about [the government’s decision],” says Kalin. “They felt that they weren’t being taken into consideration at all.”

While the government’s quick decision brought anxiety in Slovenia, by late spring in Ireland, the issue was still on the table.
The ISSU survey asked secondary students “what do you think should be done with the leaving certificate?” Students had three choices:
1. Exams should go ahead with social distancing.
2. Exams should be postponed.
3. Exams should be cancelled (meaning that final grades would be calculated based on past performance).

In Slovenia, students were split on this issue. Some wanted the exams to stay as-planned. In Slovenia, final exams make up 50% of the admission grades to university, and in this regard there was no change to the requirement. Others simply wanted the exams to be cancelled. But all students were concerned about safety and the conditions under which they would be made to return to school.

In Ireland, students were more unified on the issue. The ISSU received over 46,000 survey responses, with 49% of respondents calling for exams to be cancelled.

Voice is not enough1

Respect for the right to be heard within education is fundamental to the realisation of the right to education, which is also enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Comment No. 1 (2001) provides further clarity on education rights and makes it clear by stating that children and young people “do not lose their human rights by virtue of passing through the school gates” (CRC/GC/2001/1, para. 8). Students, it follows, should be enabled to express their views freely in order to fully participate in school life.

The Organising Bureau of European School Students Unions (OBESSU), a platform for cooperation between national secondary school student unions in Europe, such as ISSU and the School Student Organisation of Slovenia, advocates that students are the main stakeholders in the education system, with the right to participate in issues concerning their lives.

“Students are the most important actors in education,” says OBESSU Board Member Lucija Karnelutti.

She argues that it is students who have the perspective ‘in the field’ and it is students who shine a light on pressing issues that administrators may not have a feel for or understand.

Giuseppe Lipari, another OBESSU Board Member, agrees. Both he and Karnelutti were involved in drafting OBESSU’s official reaction on the impact of COVID-19 on general secondary and vocational education. The document, written with feedback from all of its 31 national school student unions and published on 3 April, outlines the main challenges facing secondary students in Europe, ranging from a lack of clear guidelines and standardisation from Ministries of Education to concerns about the psychological impact of the crisis on teachers, students and their families. It called for equity to be a top concern for governments, as disadvantaged learners were to be the most affected by the measures.
The document also makes clear the importance of student participation.

No decision about our future can be made effectively without including school students. Student organisations should be consulted in all possible forms and cooperation between school actors in this moment should be a top priority.” [emphasis in original]

You can’t place dissent under lockdown

Of course, expressing views is not enough; said views have to be listened to by someone with the power to enact change.

The ISSU took the survey results to an advisory group convened by the Department of Education, where the ISSU is a member together with representatives from the teachers trade union, principles trade union and parents’ union. However, in April, the Department did not pay much attention to the results of the survey and decided to simply postpone the exams anyway, providing no clarity on the date. 

“That was really negative for us,” says Fanning, noting that the postponement of exams to an uncertain date in the future caused a wave of student stress. “It was a huge amount of pressure put on students […] We knew that if this decision was the final one, no matter what we did, it was really bad for people with mental health [issues]. I was really concerned that there were going to be suicides in the aftermath of the decision because the high-stakes nature of exams is really prominent.”

Unlike in Ireland, the student organisation in Slovenia did not sit on any official advisory groups. Meetings were held at the Ministry of Education with principals and other senior bureaucrats to discuss COVID-related decisions, but students were not invited. While the survey results in Slovenia were not conclusive on the issue of exams, they highlighted a lot of issues that were important to students. 

The student representatives presented these issues in an open letter to the Ministry of Education.

They received no response.

The organisation then went to the media, conducting interviews and holding press conferences, calling on the ministry to let students be involved in these decisions and to give more clarity about the decisions.

 “The relationship is more like: we’re not being heard,” explains Kalin. “But when we push our way, kind of ‘blackmail’ them into listening to us, that’s when things happen.”

Putting agency back into the hands of students

In Ireland, Fanning and the ISSU did not give up after the Department of Education’s initial decision to postpone the exams.

“We, as an organisation, [had to show] that we could be very constructive, that we weren’t just ‘moaning’,” she explains.

Over the course of 10 meetings of the advisory group – a long and drawn-out process – the ISSU continued to push for student issues to be on the table.

By the end of May and in early June, significantly more was known about how COVID-19 spreads. Finally, in June, the Department of Education ruled to cancel exams – what students had indicated in the survey that they wanted the most – with the option for students to sit them if they wanted to once it became safe or possible for them to do so.

Fanning was elated. Although she recognises that the changing nature of the pandemic made it more clear that exams were not going to be possible, she also sees the impact of student participation on the conversation.

“I was so conscious [of the fact that] if I wasn’t in the room, the students’ voice wasn’t being heard,” she says. “And it wasn’t a deliberate move to exclude students. It was just a lack of comprehension from those who aren’t actually in the education system about what it’s like to be a young person.”

The final decision was one that put agency back into the hands of the students at a time when many things about the pandemic felt completely out of control for everyone.

Gaining allies and expanding influence

Throughout all of this, Kalin and the Slovenian student organisation forged an alliance with an unexpected group – their teachers. In the past, the teachers and students unions had not really cooperated, but during COVID-19, the Ministry of Education locked teachers out of meetings in the same way they did students, preferring to deal primarily with principles and school administrators. Together, students held a press conference with teachers, further boosting their own reach and influence.

“Students are the forgotten group, but in this instance, both were forgotten,” says Kalin. “We were advocating for the same thing: for more information to be given and for communication between our union, the teachers’ union and the ministry to be better.”

In the end, the ministry did not drastically improve the way it communicated with students or teachers. Nor did the ministry address many of the demands laid out in the original student letter. However, there were some small wins. Schools were told to ease up on student workloads and to reconsider grading in light of the COVID-19 situation – two issues that were highlighted in the open letter.

“Students were complaining. Teachers were complaining,” says Kalin. “[The decisions] were definitely not because of the letter alone, but it still gave some insight [into the reality of the lives of students].”

Masking up but speaking out

Lockdown measures and school closures have impacted young people in a very personal way, leading many to get engaged in public policy – some for the very first time. From grassroots organisation on exams to calling into radio and television shows to talk about their concerns, young people are paying attention to education decisions more than ever before.

“We have never seen so much engagement from students as we have in the past three months,” explains Fanning. “[It’s] never got to this level.”

Kalin was also surprised by the groundswell of student activism in Slovenia.

“We are used to students not participating,” she says. “And even though some students went against the union [on some issues], it was encouraging for me to see that they took a stance. I was glad to see students actually participate, for them to see an issue and raise their voice about it.”

Students have also started looking for solidarity internationally – across borders – based on a common experience with lockdown and school closures around the globe. Student unions from Bangladesh to Italy have begun to link up over videoconference and social media, with a type of global student forum starting to emerge.

“The months of lockdown have given us this opportunity to link with other student unions around the world,” says Lipari from the Organising Bureau of European School Students Unions. “Building solidarity globally out of this crisis was totally unexpected.”

Fanning agrees, reflecting that the more young people’s lives are affected by policies, the more they want to assert their right to have a voice in them.

“[Young people] have had a political awakening in a way,” she says. “That has been one of the really positive things out of really negative circumstances.”

This might be the bright spot of the pandemic, if one is to be found.

  1. This is the title of an article by Laura Lundy (2005), which conceptualises a model of child participation comprised of four elements: Space, Voice, Audience, Influence. Without all four elements, participation cannot be considered meaningful or rights-abiding under Article 12 of the CRC. Lundy, L. (2005) “‘Voice’ is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. ↩︎

The cover image was designed by Estonian artist Martin Märss.

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