The government's failure – indeed refusal – to make contingency plans for schools and exams in the summer of 2020 is the most “unforgiveable aspect” of its handling of education during the coronavirus pandemic, says a new report by the Institute for Government.
Published ahead of next week’s A-Level and GCSE results and based on interviews with government insiders and education experts, Schools and Coronavirus: The government’s handling of education during the pandemic exposes how decisions were taken during the most disruptive period in children’s education since the Second World War.
The government deserves some credit, such as for its swift decision on the definition of key workers whose children could remain in school and, if after a slow start, delivering more than one million laptops to disadvantaged pupils. But across 2020 and 2021, pupils, parents and teachers were too often left bewildered by last-minute, poorly communicated U-turns on school closures and exams.
Disagreements between No.10 and the Department for Education particularly hampered the response, and a mistrust of local authorities saw ministers seek to control what happened in 24,000 schools – culminating in threats of legal action by DfE when local authorities and schools sought to respond to local Covid-19 circumstances.
But the worst part of the response, in the eyes of those interviewed for the paper, was the failure to make contingency plans in the summer and autumn of 2020 when it was already obvious that fresh school closures and exam cancellations might be needed.
A No.10 insider says that there was a “clear steer” from the prime minister not to make contingency plans because “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.” This left the government and schools unprepared when exams had to be cancelled a second time in spring 2021.
Report author and IfG senior fellow Nicholas Timmins said:
“Most countries faced a challenge over schooling that was unprecedented in modern times as the pandemic struck. 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.”
Notes for editors
- The full report can be found on our website.
- The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
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