‘Left Adrift and Wondering What the Future Holds’

The Need for Agency and Critical Hope


  • Lucy Wenham University of Bristol
  • Claire Lee University of Bristol




critical hope, agency, high-stakes testing, neoliberal education systems, students, examinations, pandemic, COVID19


This qualitative study explores the experiences of students whose education was disrupted by school closures during the COVID-19 global pandemic. With a focus on mental health concerns, the article presents the reflections, thoughts and feelings of students whose public examinations were cancelled and who experienced both the abrupt termination of a phase of their formal education and the loss of traditional ways of marking that ending. Findings show that feelings of loss and illegitimacy augment the stress and anxiety surrounding high-stakes tests and their cancellation. There are several implications for policy and practice, if student mental health is to be foregrounded and taken seriously. Communication, dialogue, and possibilities for taking back agency and critical hope may all go some way towards mitigating these mental health concerns. The validity of using re-purposed components to allocate grades is called into question, as are the role and place of high-stakes testing per se.

Author Biographies

Lucy Wenham, University of Bristol

Dr Lucy Wenham is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Bristol. She is interested in problems of educational disadvantage, marginalisation and exclusion and crucially also in exploring solutions involving discourse, agency and critical pedagogies. As a secondary school teacher in schools in challenging circumstances for over 15 years, much of her research is ethnographic, to allow the voices of the marginalised to shine through.  

Claire Lee, University of Bristol

Claire Lee taught in secondary and primary schools in the UK before completing an ESRC-funded PhD at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her interests include understanding how children develop a sense of self in educational settings, as well as matters of teaching and learning, children’s literacies, power, and classroom relationships. She uses art-based and participatory ethnographic methods in her research which is committed to creating spaces for dialogue with children.