Following this week’s inquest which saw Boris Johnson’s former special advisor Dominic Cummings give evidence, it became clear that the government as a whole did not have a robust plan in place pre the Covid-19 pandemic. Coupled with this, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons published a report on the 26th May providing evidence that the DfE also had no plans in place in the event of a national emergency like the pandemic.
When school closures took place, the DfE had no structure for remote or in-school learning, resulting in children having massively varied educational experiences during and beyond the first lockdown. The DfE was also described as being “surprisingly resistant to the idea of conducting a proper lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic” with recommendations that this should take place in order to aid a plan for recovery. Without an approach which reflects on past mistakes when constructing a ‘recovery’ plan, how can we expect the recovery plan to incorporate the lessons learned over a very difficult last 14 months, which was characterised by a trend of inadequate planning, last minute reactive announcements, U-turns and vague guidance.
This trend highlighted the fact that the DfE did not have adequate plans in place, not just pre-pandemic, but throughout the last 14 months, leading to a number of high profile ‘car crash’ moments, such as the exams debacle of last summer. Worryingly, whilst we still do not have the ‘official’ plan for schools ‘recovery’ either, we also still lack robust and clear plans for exam appeals for summer GCSE and A Level results; with many school leaders predicting chaos and a summer of disruption as schools deal with potentially record levels of appeals. Members of the Schools North East MAT CEO roundtable this week strongly questioned whether guidance will be released to allow sufficient time to plan and that this may become a burden over the summer which will take up the time which is needed for recuperation and preparation for the beginning of the new school term in September.
This consistent lack of forward planning has had a severe impact on all staff in schools, but especially senior leaders. Late announcements and sudden changes in guidance for schools plunged school staff into overdrive with no thought for wellbeing and workload. Schools North East staff wellbeing surveys in the Autumn and Spring terms highlighted the enormous impact on staff wellbeing. Although wellbeing has improved somewhat this term, school staff are exhausted and desperately in need of a proper rest over the summer, not another summer of disruption and exam chaos.
Schools North East and school staff were calling out for a decision on assessments and related issues as far back as November 2020 so schools could properly prepare for the summer. The decision once again came too late with staff stating that teacher assessed grades (TAGs) were having a hugely negative impact on their wellbeing.
North East CEOs also asked questions of Ofsted as we still have no clear idea of what they will be inspecting, with rhetoric including a number of very vague “could” rather than “will” . Clarification on the role, remit, and timings of inspections need to be made sooner rather than later as this could cause further issues in regards to increased workload over a short period of time furthering the potential for a negative impact on wellbeing. There are also significant doubts over what will happen in respect of school routines post 21st June and the government intention to return to “normal”. It is becoming increasingly urgent that the DfE clarify what is expected of schools: whether there will still be a need for bubbles etc and a clear ‘catch-up’ picture.