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.
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.
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.
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.”