DfE rebuffs call for systematic review of Covid response

Department is focusing on ongoing improvements and government-wide public inquiry, perm sec Susan Acland-Hood says
Free school meals provision is one area where DfE has "built on our experience and feedback from stakeholders", Acland-Hood says. Photo: Kathy deWitt/Alamy Stock Photo

The Department for Education has turned down a call to carry out a lessons-learned review of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood said while her department is “committed to looking at lessons learned across DfE to improve our approaches and deliver the best outcomes for children and learners”, it will continue to do so “regularly and systematically” rather than launching a major pandemic-focused exercise.

Acland-Hood wrote to the Public Accounts Committee responding to the MPs’ recommendation to carry out a “systematic lessons-learned exercise, to evaluate its response to the pandemic and identify departmental specific lessons”.

PAC’s May report on support for children’s exercise during Covid-19, described DfE as “surprisingly resistant to the idea of conducting a proper lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic”. The department’s existing approach risked “learning lessons too late to improve how it supports the education system in the event of further disruption”, the committee said.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said at the time that DfE’s approach “shows little energy and determination to ensure that its ‘catch-up’ offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months”.

In an interview with CSW this summer, Acland-Hood said the department was in a phase of “action learning” or continuous improvement, based on constant analysis of what it had done well and poorly during the pandemic.

Her letter to Hillier, sent on 1 August but published this week, read: “At this stage, with the pandemic not yet over, our focus is on rapid-cycle improvement through practical test, learn and improve approaches, rather than big set-piece exercises. This is essential in supporting us in building back stronger and improving operational delivery.”

She said the department had used experience and feedback from the National Audit Office and others to “learn lessons and improve our response” to the Covid-19 pandemic. She cited as examples the decision to offer free school meals, which came after intense lobbying from the public, fronted by footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford; and improvements to the voucher scheme used to administer free school meals.

She also said working with stakeholders had prompted a more “user-oriented” approach to issuing guidance and communications about restrictions on children attending school during coronavirus lockdowns.

But she added: “Given that the response to the pandemic has been so deeply interconnected across government, we feel it is important to take forward the PAC recommendation in a way that is consistent and developed collaboratively with broader evaluation of the pandemic response across government.

“This will ensure we can create richer lessons learned, across the whole response.”

She said DfE officials were working with those in the Cabinet Office to ensure the department is “appropriately involved in any cross-government lessons-learned activity” ahead of next year’s public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid crisis.

“Once activity is confirmed, we will ensure that DfE is appropriately involved,” she said.

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