Thursday 5th August, 2021

The Institute for Government this week published, Schools and coronavirus: The government’s handling of education during the pandemic, a report based on interviews with figures within government and education experts. It is an important document, an excellent account of a period that was “easily the most disruptive in children’s education since the start of the Second World War”. You can read the report in full here. I am not going to add a great deal of my own words here, but instead will paste a dozen quotations from the report and offer brief responses of my own from our school’s experiences.

1. “Its most important conclusion is that the most unforgivable aspect of what happened is not just the failure to make contingency plans in the summer of 2020 but the refusal to do so – when it was already obvious that fresh school closures might well be needed, and that exams might have to be cancelled again.”

We had great teachers who after the experience of 2020 chose to leave middle leader positions because they, like most all of us, could see in Autumn 2020 that exams were unlikely to be held in the Summer of 2021, and they were not prepared to put themselves through a blame game with the government allowing an accusative finger to be pointed at teachers, heads of departments, and schools following the own failure to make sensible early contingency plans.

2. “Throughout 2020, not just the prime minister but education ministers and in particular Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, seemed determined to appear to be in control of events that they could not in fact control. There were repeated assertions that this or that would happen – that test kits would be available in schools in September, for example, or that schools absolutely would reopen in January 2021, or that exams would definitely be held in 2021 – up to the point where they did not happen, forcing last-minute U-turns.”

This was absolutely our experience.  With each of the three examples provided above we heard the Government’s assertions and did not believe from our experience on the ground that this would happen, but nonetheless had to waste time planning as if this were to be the case.  It felt to us at the time that the government were focused more on trying to control the political narrative rather than managing the pandemic.  This point matters because it had significant consequences for the lives of many good people in our school and doubtless in many others.

3. “Williamson was to announce that three million pupils in secondary schools would do precisely that – switch to online learning – for the first week of the January term to allow them to set up mass testing for their pupils. That came a mere week before Christmas.”

This was a low point for me personally and, I know, other headteachers too.  To be honest, I was more than a little frustrated at the government’s incompetence when the mass testing missive first landed before Christmas.  After months of online learning and then everybody in schools working their socks off to deliver a superb service throughout the autumn term, we all just needed a brief break without this kind of nonsense.  I told relevant colleagues to ignore this diktat until after Christmas when hopefully the government would see better sense, but no sooner had Boxing Day passed than colleagues and I had to sit watching webinars telling us what we would have to do in order to set up testing over the next week.  While we were watching we all knew and discussed that if there was any good sense in Whitehall then schools would not be reopening in January given that Covid cases were so high and that our watching, planning, and organising testing would all be a waste of everybody’s time over the Christmas holiday.

The report’s author, Nicholas Timmins, writes, “I don’t think it is harsh to look at this period as one of the more shambolic bits of government decision making that there has been throughout this pandemic. It is hard to look at this and find a defensible series of decisions.”

4. Moving onto to May 2020: “…in declaring the ambition that all primary pupils would return by the summer [of 2020], ‘the department was saying something that it just did not believe and which it knew was wrong. Nobody in the department from ministers to officials believed that could happen, on the basis of the guidance about bubbles of 15 pupils. We knew that there were neither the staff nor the space to open all schools up fully before the end of term. Everyone in the department knew that and yet it went into the guidance. And I am as clear as I can be that it came from No.10 and was insisted on by No.10 … it is a credibility-shredding thing to do to say you are going to try to do that when you have no way of trying to do that.”

We all know that making unsustainable promises has been characteristic of how No.10 has responded to the pandemic.  Again, it matters because the cheap and easy words impacted the lives of teachers and school leaders who spent time planning for things they knew or strongly suspected would not come to pass: primary schools could open three year groups in bubbles that were half the usual class size, but most primary schools simply would not have the space or staff to do this for all seven year groups.

5. “Between mid-March and the end of May 2020 no fewer than 148 new guidance documents, or updates to existing material, were issued to schools.”

Tell me about it! This is what all school leaders lived. Some of these DfE documents arrived after 11pm and nonetheless called for immediate action, some contradicted previous positions, new policies were sometimes announced to the public before official guidance had even arrived. This is how the last year has been for us all. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College London found that the DfE issued more than 200 pieces of guidance in the first 90 days of the pandemic starting from 18 March 2020, including a dozen days when the department issued at least five separate pieces of guidance. It felt like they were in panic mode and everybody else had to live with the consequences. At first, in March 2020, it was understandable and forgivable. As time passed and this mode of working changed little, increasingly less so.

6. “[Gvmt] ministers hated local government and they wanted central control….DfE are very, very top down. Their relationship with schools is that we will tell you something, and you will do it.” 

There were occasions when we believed the DfE’s decisions were dangerously flawed and so we went in the opposite direction. One example is reinstating face coverings when the Delta variant was on the march in June 2021. Another is during what the report terms the “shambles at the beginning of January 2021, when many primary schools were opened and then told to close again on the same day”. In January 2021 the government finally concluded that the infection rates of the virus were too high to open schools yet nonetheless required Early Years settings such as pre-schools and nurseries to remain open and to do so without any of the additional restrictions that had been required when schools and nurseries reopened previously in June 2020 when there were far fewer Covid cases. Early Years settings are too often an afterthought at the DfE. At that moment in time cases locally in Three Rivers and Watford were among the highest in the UK. In our school we wanted to prioritise the safety and well-being of our community, the children, their families and of course our staff, and therefore made the decision to delay the opening of our pre-school nursery to all but children of critical workers and to vulnerable children. There are times when informed local decisions work better than the heavy-handed approach of central government. Maintained sector schools had been threatened with legal action by the Education Secretary for reaching similar conclusions in December 2020, but we did not let this stop us making the right decision. Whether being an independent school gave us greater confidence to ignore the DfE requirement or not I couldn’t really say, probably not to be honest, but I certainly appreciated the ear, the advice, and the support of my Chair of Governors and Board in agreeing with this decision to protect our staff and community.

7. On the run-up to GCSE and A Level results in 2020 and the use of an algorithm to reach grades, the report says: “A No.10 insider confirms that ‘There were assurances from DfE that it was fine, and that it was the right approach. There would be a row, but it was rideable. That’s what No.10 was being told.’ In practice it became not so easy to ride as teachers began to realise the effects the algorithm would have on individual pupils.  The day of publication, 13 August, returned an all-time high of A and A*s. But almost 40% of predicted grades – a much higher percentage than in Scotland – were downgraded, with 3.5% going down two grades or more. The media was full of tearful tales from distraught pupils who had lost university places. Williamson urged schools to appeal. Asked on Sky News whether he would give ‘a cast-iron guarantee’ that he would not be forced into the same U-turn as Scotland, he replied: ‘Absolutely.’”

In the summer of 2020 the Education Secretary came across to many of us who work in education as a man who had not spent enough time thinking about these problems or listening to others, and possibly as somebody who was not concerned about the individuals, the hardworking individual pupils, in the same way that schools and teachers are very much concerned. 

8. “The single biggest issue has, however, to be the failure in the summer and autumn of 2020 to learn lessons from the first wave of the pandemic – and to make contingency plans.  And on contingency planning, over the summer and autumn of 2020 there was not just a failure to do that. There was a refusal to, and on the part of both No.10 and DfE…It seemed to be driven by the view that if you make a contingency plan it makes it more likely to happen in some way. Which is a very peculiar way of thinking about the world. An unsophisticated attitude to risk. So we ended up, far too many times, in a position where, without much planning having gone on, a late decision was made…A No.10 source says that ‘the clear steer’ that officials received from the prime minister was not to make contingency plans. Schools were going to reopen. Exams would be held. The view was that ‘if you prepare for these things not happening, then the outcome is that they are far more likely not to happen … people will look for the easy way out and take it.’ According to this insider, the prime minister’s ‘default is to bluff. To talk up things to such an extent that they will happen through the force of his own personality. Which is a very powerful tool. But the virus doesn’t listen to those messages’.”

Do I need to add any words to this?  If true, the above shows shocking arrogance and incompetence.  Everybody in education knew and said at the time that there had to be a Plan B.  Teachers left their posts because they could see what was coming and that there was no proper plan in place early enough. 

9. “On 6 January, Gavin Williamson was unable to spell out how GCSEs, A-levels and BTecs would be assessed, beyond the slogan that it was ‘time to trust teachers, not algorithms’. Geoff Barton, as head of the ASCL union, again said: ‘It is frustrating that there is not an off-the-shelf Plan B ready to go. We have repeatedly called on the government and the regulator to prepare such a plan in the event of exams being cancelled, and have repeatedly offered to work with them in doing so’…As late as 9 March, as schools were returning, Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, was promising ‘an enormous amount of guidance’ still to come from the exam boards on ‘how to assess a grade, grade descriptors and so on’.”

Aside from pointing out that ‘an enormous amount of guidance’ did not arrive from exam boards, the issue here is that the lack of forward thinking and planning placed unnecessary levels of stress on pupils, teachers, and parents. Of course I won’t share their stories publicly, but I saw this first-hand in each of these groups.

10. In summer 2021, “the government was desperate not to be accused of having an algorithm, and not to be seen to be introducing ‘exams by the back door’. But that meant ‘no common assessment taken under standard conditions’.”

This year we have absolutely had exams by the back door. Many pupils took more exam assessments than ever would ordinarily be the case. What there has not been is anything to anchor these different assessments to, no real quality assurance between different schools. And that approach risks the integrity of pupils’ grades, which is wholly unacceptable given all of the hard work of pupils and their teachers.

11. “…there is a worry among some that teachers ‘have been set up to fail’, that they will be blamed for the yet greater grade inflation that many believe is on its way.”

I have sat in meetings of headteachers this year when we have discussed the government’s proposals and reached the conclusion that a main motive in planning for GCSE and A-level grades this year has been to ensure that it is teachers/schools rather than the government who will be blamed if anything goes wrong.

12. “It is impossible to separate out what happened in schools from the government’s handling of the pandemic more generally. The repeated failure to lock down fast enough and hard enough. The prime minister’s wild optimism across 2020 – seen in his claim in March last year that ‘we can turn the tide in 12 weeks’ and ‘send the virus packing’; in April that ‘we are past the peak’; in July that there should be ‘a significant return to normality by Christmas’; in November that there was ‘every reason to believe’ that ‘the worst is nearly behind us’.” 

I agree 100% with the first sentence above.  I wrote in the first post of this blog that, “I realised today that I can’t write honestly about being a Head and running our school without putting life at our school in a broader national context that sometimes includes the current political context. The experience of everybody in schools this last year is enough evidence that successfully navigating our way through a pandemic is bigger and broader than personal responsibility.”

Schools and coronavirus: The government’s handling of education during the pandemic is an excellent and important report. While it contains few revelations or surprises, it is cathartic to read given its confirmation of so much that we knew or suspected all along. It is also important that these interviews took place now, as contemporaneously as possible, and that this report has been published. Ahead of the publication of next weeks A-level and GCSE grades, let’s hope that we can we stop vilifying teachers and instead give them credit for the exceptional care that they exercise every year, while applauding their extraordinary efforts over the last eighteen months.

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