The government’s refusal to draw up contingency plans to protect schools and exams before a second lockdown was an “unforgivable” error that left teachers and parents in England to deal with chaos, according to a new investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic.
The report by the Institute for Government thinktank castigates No 10 and the Department for Education (DfE) for insisting schools in England would remain open and exams would go ahead this year, even as it became obvious a second wave of infections made a second lockdown inevitable.
“What followed was easily the most disruptive period in children’s education since at least the start of the second world war … When it came to education, U-turn was to follow U-turn. 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,” the report concluded.
The report claims that senior figures, from the prime minister down, opposed the creation of backup plans for assessing A-levels, GCSEs and other qualifications in the event of formal exams not being held, leaving them without options and forced to pass responsibility on to teachers.
Nicholas Timmins, the author of the report, said: “The biggest single failure has to be the refusal to make contingency plans over the summer and autumn of 2020, the biggest impact of which was the failure to have anything in place to handle the second cancellation of exams in 2021.”
Timmins’s report quotes civil servants and sources within No 10 and the DfE that “confirm not just the failure but the refusal to make contingency plans” for further exam cancellations. It quotes a No 10 source as saying that “the clear steer” officials received from the prime minister was not to make contingency plans.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has not yet announced plans for September regarding how schools should handle Covid.
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According to the same source, No 10’s 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”. The source claimed Boris Johnson’s “default is to bluff. To talk up things to such an extent that they will happen through the force of his own personality.”
Another civil servant told Timmins that “having a contingency plan if things go wrong is seen by some ministers as a negative thought. If you plan for the worst, you are probably going to get it. And we were working for a set of politicians who wanted to be clear that they were in charge, and that they knew what they were doing.”
The report, Schools and Coronavirus: the Government’s Handling of Education During the Pandemic, concluded 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.”
The report praises the DfE for its initial handling of the response during the first lockdown in March 2020, especially the decision to keep schools open to the children of key workers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds or in care. However, Timmins says that the 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”.
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A DfE spokesperson said: “Contrary to the claims in this report, contingency plans for restrictions on schools opening in the 2021-22 academic year were first published in August 2020, and contingency plans for qualifications in 2021 were first discussed with Ofqual in October 2020.
“We have 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.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said: “Labour called for a contingency plan for exams way back in the autumn term. The Conservatives dismissed our calls, and those of teachers and leaders, resulting in a second year of exams chaos for pupils. It is clear the responsibility for this lies not just with the failing education secretary but with the prime minister himself.”
According to Timmins, the government also sought to keep local authorities away from decision-making about school closures and openings, describing its “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”.