COVID-19: Pupils, parents and teachers left ‘bewildered and floundering’ by government’s handling of education during pandemic, report says

Pupils, parents and teachers have been left “bewildered and floundering” by the government’s handling of education during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a critical new report.

The Institute for Government said that lessons were not learnt from the first COVID-19 lockdown, leading to a case of “pause, rewind, repeat” when it came to school closures and exams.

It said there were “dreadful communications” from the government, with “repeated declarations that schools would open or close, or that exams would be held – despite the evident uncertainties – until reality struck”.

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“The result was U-turn after U-turn, with pupils, parents and teachers left bewildered and floundering time and again,” it said.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it had “acted swiftly at every turn to minimise the impact on children’s education and wellbeing and help keep pupils in face-to-face education as much as possible” during the pandemic.

“We provided 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged students, funded Oak National Academy to provide video lessons and made sure students could receive exam grades that helped them progress to the next stage of education or work,” they added.

“Through the tutoring revolution that will see pupils receive up to 100 million hours of free tuition, summer schools and our investment in the teaching profession we are working with schools to deliver ambitious catch-up plans so the children and young people who have been most disadvantaged during the pandemic have the support they need to catch up on their lost learning.”

The IfG report, entitled Schools And Coronavirus: The Government’s Handling Of Education During The Pandemic, comes ahead of the release of this year’s A-level and GCSE results later this month.

It labels the period following the closure of schools in England in March 2020 “easily the most disruptive period in children’s education since at least the start of the Second World War”.

The report said: “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.

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“Lessons were not learnt from the first lockdown, with the result that, for both school closures and exams, the story from July 2020 to January 2021 was a case of ‘pause, rewind, repeat’.”

It added: “Well into March 2021, and indeed beyond, pupils taking GCSEs, A-levels and BTecs remained unclear about precisely how they were to be assessed. At times it felt as though the school system was in chaos.”

But the DfE disputed this, with a spokesperson saying: “Contrary to the claims in this report, contingency plans for restrictions on schools opening in the 21/22 academic year were first published in August 2020, and contingency plans for qualifications in 2021 were first discussed with Ofqual in October 2020.”

The report did praise what it said was the “commendably swift decision” on the definition of key workers and, therefore, which children could still come to school.

But it added that the “supply of laptops for remote learning was, perhaps unavoidably, slower than anyone would have liked”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson during a media briefing in Downing Street
The education secretary ‘appears not to have been directly involved in any of the key meetings ahead of the original decision to close schools’, the report says

And there were concerns expressed about the government’s “highly centralised approach” to dealing with 24,000 schools and “tensions between No 10 and DfE” [the Department for Education].

The IfG report also criticised what it said was a “refusal to trust local authorities and a failure to engage effectively with them, and their directors of public health, in ways that might have allowed a more nuanced and better response”.

It claimed that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson “appears not to have been directly involved in any of the key meetings ahead of the original decision to close schools in March 2020”.

The report included comments from a Number 10 source over how Boris Johnson approached contingency planning during the pandemic.

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It noted: “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.”

IfG senior fellow and report author Nicholas Timmins said: “Some early decisions in England were taken well. Some, which took longer than anyone would have wanted to implement, will have some lasting benefit.

“But the failure – indeed, the refusal – to make contingency plans over the summer and autumn of 2020 left pupils, parents and teachers facing a case of ‘pause, rewind, repeat’, not least over exams.”

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