Whitehall think tank the Institute for Government was scathing in its judgement in today’s report
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Ministers are today blasted for their “unforgivable refusal” to learn from last year’s coronavirus-fuelled education chaos.
Lessons over school closures and examinations from the first lockdown were “not learnt”, leading to a “pause, rewind, repeat” approach, according to the Institute for Government.
Published before this month’s A-level and GCSE results, the think tank’s report says the schools’ shutdown triggered “easily the most disruptive period in children’s education since at least the start of the Second World War”.
It says 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”.
The study, ‘Schools and coronavirus: The Government’s handling of education during the pandemic’, accuses ministers of “Dreadful communications. Repeated declarations that schools would open or close, or that exams would be held – despite the evident uncertainties – until reality struck. The result was U-turn after U-turn, with pupils, parents and teachers left bewildered and floundering time and again”.
It includes claims over Boris Johnson’s approach to contingency planning.
“A No10 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,” says the study.
“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 Nicholas Timmins said: “Most countries faced a challenge over schooling that was unprecedented in modern times as the pandemic struck.
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“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.”
National Association of Headteachers general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “I have never understood the failure to make contingencies for exams in the face of the obvious risk and whole profession calling for them.”
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “Children, parents, teachers and school and college leaders have been repeatedly let down by the Conservatives’ chaotic decision making and systematic refusal to learn lessons from their previous mistakes.”
But a Department for Education spokesman said: “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.
“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.”