HomeCoronavirusHow ministers made a shambles of English schools

How ministers made a shambles of English schools

After the most tumultuous school year imaginable, Jo Rockall, headteacher of Herschel Grammar School in Slough, had dared to dream that the last day of term, scheduled as a half day, might allow her time to head home and walk the dog. Instead, she is firmly ensconced in her office, attempting to work out the logistics of a detail-light coronavirus testing programme that landed on her desk days before the Christmas holiday. For Rockall and other heads in Slough, who she has been consulting in the past week, it is the latest example of a recurring theme.

“We do understand that all of this is unprecedented,” she says. “We are very empathetic with the situation. I don’t want to be negative. But I don’t think we feel that the government, or the Department for Education in particular, are properly engaging with heads. Communication is last minute, it’s ill thought-out and it hasn’t included our voice in the whole process.”

Other academics, teachers’ leaders, MPs and experts who spoke to the Observer about the government’s handling of England’s schools during the pandemic acknowledged the unprecedented challenges of managing a nation’s education during the past nine months. Yet all pointed to needless, serious and often repeated mistakes since March that have led to accusations of serial mismanagement.

In the past fortnight relations between teachers and the government have soured even further, with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, threatening legal action against Covid-hit schools seeking to close early this Christmas – before announcing plans to stagger reopenings and introduce a mass testing that schools are scrambling to set up. Now there are concerns about a legacy of widening inequality and an exodus of experienced staff.

Jo Rockall thinks the government’s handling of the crisis has been ill thought out. Photograph: Herschel Grammar School

Anger is far more widespread than frontline staff or unions. One Tory MP says: “I would regard myself as a loyalist. I think this has been the biggest shambles and disgrace from beginning to end.”

After schools closed to all but vulnerable children, early issues soon cropped up. Teachers began receiving angry calls from parents unable to access the online voucher system for free school meals, run by Edenred. At the peak of the crisis, the company’s helpline was receiving almost 4,000 calls and nearly 9,000 emails from school staff and parents. By April, Department for Education officials were holding daily crisis calls with Edenred. It later emerged that the government had signed contracts worth up to £425m with the company, despite “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver.

With immediate concerns that more deprived and vulnerable children would be hardest hit by the loss of classroom time, ministers announced a plan to hand free laptops to those most in need a month into lockdown. However, the programme was hit with delays and teachers continued to complain that they were not receiving them in time and in big enough numbers. While 220,000 devices had been delivered by August, the children’s commissioner warned that just over a third of disadvantaged children had benefited. By then, 27 multi-academy trusts had received only one laptop each. This weekend, the government announced plans to make another 440,000 laptops available, saying this would bring the total to one million.

Covid restrictions at St Luke’s Church of England Primary School in London.

Covid restrictions at St Luke’s Church of England Primary School in London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The attempted reopening of schools before the summer break caused relations between the government and teachers to deteriorate further. Heads had been trying to devise ways to create social distancing since the early spring. Behind the scenes, heads, teaching unions and ministers had been discussing a workable plan for school return. However, Boris Johnson announced plans that included the return of all primary school pupils a month before the summer holidays. “A child in a primary school maths class could have told you that under the restrictions, there weren’t enough teachers or enough classrooms to accommodate that,” says Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. With heads warning of staff shortages and contradictions with the government’s own Covid guidelines, the plan was dropped.

The battle over reopening schools was only a prelude to the fiasco that was to unfold over the summer. With GCSEs and A-levels cancelled, ministers planned to use an algorithm to calculate results. While ministers emphasised the need to keep grades in line with those of previous years, warnings were being made both publicly by the education select committee and privately to the government.

The main concern was the potential for bias against disadvantaged students. Teachers were shown the results just a day before they were passed to students. The fallout was swift. Tory MPs were furious. Williamson said the appeals process would be improved, but told a Saturday paper: “This is it … No U-turn, no change.” Later that day, the exams regulator Ofqual published and deleted details of the appeals process. By the Monday, a screeching U-turn was announced. The top DfE civil servant and the Ofqual chief executive were casualties of the crisis. No minister resigned.

Students wait in line for their GCSE results at Kingsdale Foundation school in south London in August.

Students wait in line for their GCSE results at Kingsdale Foundation school in south London in August. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

By the time September arrived, schools had spent the summer making their classrooms Covid compliant as best they could. Further anger erupted when new government guidance on reopening was issued on a Friday evening the week before students were due to return. “There’s been a public narrative prompted by the government at times that somehow teachers are lazy and spent the period of lockdown sitting in their garden sipping prosecco,” says Whiteman. “The reality is very different.”

Coronavirus testing is now the issue preoccupying teachers. This weekend, some heads have been writing to parents about draft plans, but warning them that the tests depend on permission slips being produced by the government and on the assumption that the right kit arrived. Some asked any parents with a medical background to help out. Department guidance eventually emerged at 9pm on Friday.

Longer term, there are concerns that the Covid fallout for the most disadvantaged students will be severe unless more help is directed at them. A study by the Education Policy Institute found that broadly speaking, places with lower prior GCSE results had lost more school days relative to pre-pandemic levels – areas such as Knowsley, Oldham, Rochdale and Sandwell. Attendance rates were as low as 53% last week for secondary schools in Medway, according to FFT Education Datalab. Some warn that those left behind need far more help. “So far, the DfE hasn’t targeted enough resources at those disadvantaged pupils,” says Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute . “It’s made available £1bn for catch-up support. While £650m of that is being allocated directly to schools, it’s allocated on a per pupil basis with no acknowledgement of deprivation.” Meanwhile, the membership of a promised expert panel to advise on fairness in exams has not yet been announced.

The department says it took swift action on an expanded free school meals programme. It says it recognised the challenge of mass testing and is grateful to staff. It says it will make exams as fair as possible, adding that it has invested millions in mental health charities to support teachers. “Children’s education is a national priority and this government has acted consistently in the interest of young people since the start of the pandemic,” a spokesperson says. “We have announced an unprecedented package of measures to make exams fair next year; we have developed a £1bn catch-up programme for pupils; we are delivering half a million devices to children – with more to come; and we have prioritised, above all else, making sure young people can be in school, with their friends and teachers. We are enormously grateful for the resilience and commitment they have shown in supporting children during such a challenging time.”

Students return from their summer break in September.

Students return from their summer break in September. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Simon Burgess, a professor of economics at Bristol University who has been monitoring the impact of the pandemic on pupils, says the government should not be judged against a “perfect performance” given the circumstances, but errors are clear. “Advice or instructions given to schools have often been contradictory,” he says. “We’ve just witnessed the last couple of days. They were prepared to go to court to force Greenwich schools to stay open. And yet, they’re now promoting online learning. The national tutoring programme has £350m to spend, but it’s nowhere near enough money. They need to recognise the chasm of lost skills.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, says education civil servants have been given “an impossible job” by politicians. “The reason why so much of what the DfE has done has been so poor, is because they’re trying to obey a political mandate which is just irresponsible, and is just inoperable,” she says. “They’ve got this mantra that schools must remain open. Unions didn’t want to keep schools closed. Unions wanted to open schools safely.”

Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the education select committee, says there is plenty of blame to go round – and calls for a reset on education policy. “The government has been firefighting making their own mistakes, but has also had to battle Ofsted and the unions, who both should have done more,” he says. “The catch-up fund potentially could be groundbreaking if it works, but there should be a national long-term plan for education, just as the NHS has a 10-year plan.”

Unsurprisingly, teacher stress and anxiety has peaked, especially for heads. A week before school lockdown, those reporting very high work-related anxiety hit 38% among headteachers, before peaking again at 40% among the group during the June reopening, according to a Teacher Tapp survey. It has raised concerns about a teacher retention crisis once the pandemic is under control. Last month, 47% of those who took part in a poll by the NAHT said they were likely to leave their jobs prematurely.

Rockall admits fatigue is kicking in. “The staff and the children are what keeps you going really, but I’m tired,” she says. “I know the other heads are tired. It’s quite a struggle when you get such big things like this land on your desk. At the end of all this are young people whose lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic, who look to us for certainty around their futures. It’s very difficult to be able to provide them with that.”

The view from inside the classroom

Dr Robin Bevan, headteacher, Southend, and president of the National Education Union

“This year has been the hardest I’ve had in my 14 years as a headteacher. I’ve never cried publicly in an assembly before – but when I had to send our oldest pupils home in March, without all the usual end-of-year celebrations and rites of passage, knowing I’d probably never see them again, I shed a tear. You make an emotional investment in the pupils you teach and sending them away, closing the school, is not what you come into teaching to do.

Robin Bevan: ‘This is not what you come into teaching to do.’

Robin Bevan: ‘This is not what you come into teaching to do.’ Photograph: Jess Hurd

During lockdown, teachers at my school delivered 50,000 online lessons. That was extraordinary and I think my staff did some really inventive and creative work, transforming what we would do in class to activities pupils could do at home. But not all parents had realistic expectations during lockdown and it could be challenging. There were weeks I worked 70-plus hours. Now, I’m exhausted. I go to bed at 9.30pm every night, trying to recuperate.

I felt under the most pressure during the summer, when I was working out the logistics for full reopening of the school for September. The government guidelines only came out in August and we needed to work out the changes we were going to make before that, to ensure the school would be Covid-secure. It was a relief to find my plan worked within their guidance.

This term, we’ve all been more stressed and anxious than usual. We’ve lost some of the social cohesion you normally have in schools, due to social distancing.

Recently, I’ve been spending most of my Sundays contact tracing. It takes about two hours to process each positive case. Classrooms are some of the most overcrowded work environments in this country and over the past week alone, 24 teaching staff and over 500 pupils were off school self-isolating.

What gives me hope is seeing how much students cherish being in school now, following the lockdown. When they are told they have to go into self-isolation, my goodness, they really do not want to go. They want to be here. I’ve never known anything like it.”

Ed Finch, primary school teacher, Oxford

“I spent most of the first lockdown teaching vulnerable and key workers’ children, so I still went into school every day. Like a lot of teachers, I relished the opportunity to work with smaller groups – a maximum of 15 were allowed in each classroom – and since they were all of different ages, there was much less pressure to teach an academic curriculum. You’d hear teachers saying: this feels like why I went into teaching.

I’ve noticed children have been quite anxious this term and less able to concentrate than usual. I’ve missed the singing assemblies and being able to chat to colleagues in the staff room.

Ed Finch has found teaching ‘a melancholy experience’.

Ed Finch has found teaching ‘a melancholy experience’. Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

We have worked hard to maintain a sense of community – making videos with green screens instead of inviting parents in to school to watch the nativity show. But a lot of what makes the school a special place to be, and binds us together, has had to be sacrificed. For example, last week, we weren’t able to have Christmas dinner together in the hall or sing carols at the old folks’ home the way we normally would.

Overall, it has been a melancholy experience, teaching this term. And the way the Department for Education has treated teachers over the past week – when we’ve been on our knees, crawling towards the finish line – beggars belief. They do not communicate in a way that shows any respect for the people who have to implement their decisions.

As one last gift from 2020, I found out this weekend that I had been in contact with a person [at school] who had tested positive and am now having to self-isolate until Boxing Day. I feel very glum – I had been looking forward to spending time outdoors enjoying socially distanced walks and coffees with people I haven’t seen enough of in many months. My hopes have to be pinned on a better 2021.”

Jeremy Barraud, parent of GCSE pupil, London

“My son is 16 and will be sitting his GCSEs next summer. The first few weeks of lockdown were confusing for him. He is at that age where suddenly not being able to see his friends was quite disorientating.

Jeremy Barraud: ‘I don’t think my son’s year group will have a chance to fulfil their potential.’

Jeremy Barraud: ‘I don’t think my son’s year group will have a chance to fulfil their potential.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Jeremy Barraud

On top of that, it took a while for the school to get going with remote learning and for him to get to grips with that. For example, we found out quite late in the day that there were some areas where my son had missed things he was supposed to do, without realising it.

We were concerned at the start of the academic year about his exams in the summer, but the school reassured us that they would make sure all the pupils in year 11 were back up to speed in time.

The main problem is that my son has had to repeatedly self-isolate over the past term. In total, he’s had three periods of self-isolation because of illness within the year group, plus a short period when the entire school was closed when the senior management team had to self-isolate. That meant his mock exams were rescheduled twice.

There has been a huge amount of disruption this term and he’s had an awful lot to deal with, including sickness within the family. I worry that the grades from his mocks will count more than usual if exams are cancelled in the summer, and he will have to base his whole future on exams from a period when there was massive upheaval at school. I also feel sorry for the teachers. I don’t think his year group will have a chance to fulfil their potential.”

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