A damning report on the government’s handling of schools and exams during the cornavirus pandemic has accused ministers of pointedly refusing to undertake proper contingency panning and of failing to learn lessons from the first national lockdown quickly enough.
Independent think tank the Institute for Government said disagreements between No.10 and the Department for Education had particularly hampered the response to Covid-19, while a mistrust of local authorities saw ministers seek to control what happened in England’s 24,000 schools. The move resulted in threats of legal action from DfE when local authorities and schools sought to respond to local Covid-19 circumstances.
The IfG also said original research informed by interviews and round-tables involving officials, as well as on-the-record evidence from select committee sessions, had revealed that key decisions on national school closures in March 2020 were taken without the involvement of DfE leadership.
It said that neither education secretary Gavin Williamson nor then DfE perm sec Jonathan Slater appeared to have been closely involved in the decision to announce school closures in March 2020. One unnamed official said the move had been a “decision at the centre”.
While the report paints a picture of chaotic decision-making and U-turns that will be all too familiar to many parents of school-age children, its harshest criticism is of government’s failure to use its experience of last year’s first national lockdown to inform its actions in the summer and autumn of 2020.
The IfG report pointed to a Public Accounts Committee report that contended as recently as May this year that DfE had yet to carry out “a full review of its response during the early stages to identify lessons to improve its emergency preparedness and response to any future disruptions”.
The IfG report said: “On contingency planning, over the summer and autumn of 2020 there was not just a failure to do that. There was a refusal to, and on the part of both No.10 and DfE.”
It said various officials with knowledge of the decision-making process had indicated that the desire not to make formal contingency plans was driven by fears that details would leak, making them self-fulfilling measures rather than worst-case-scenario options.
The report quoted one No.10 source saying there had been a “clear steer” from the prime minister that DfE officials were not to make contingency plans. “Schools were going to reopen. Exams would be held,” they said. “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’.”
An unnamed civil servant added: “Having a contingency plan if things go wrong is seen by some ministers as a negative thought.”
The IfG said that the lack of contingency plans meant that when the closure of all schools was announced in another policy U-turn on 4 January this year, there was not a plan-B in place for “alternative arrangements” for summer examinations that would not take place.
The report found praise for some education-related aspects of the government’s pandemic response, such as the Cabinet Office’s rapid categorisation of key workers whose children would be entitled to remain at school throughout the first lockdown.
Government work to procure and distribute laptops, tablets and routers to children who needed them for remote working was also identified as a project that was ultimately successful and which would have long-term positive outcomes for education. The IfG said that by March this year 1.3m devices had been dispatched.
However the report concluded that refusing to undertake contingency planning for events that were an obvious risk – such as school closures and exam cancellations in the 2020-21 academic year – was “unforgivable”.
Report author Nicholas Timmins said most countries faced a challenge over schooling that was unprecedented in modern times as the pandemic struck, but it was hard to excuse key elements of the government’s approach.
“Some early decisions in England were taken well. Some, which took longer than anyone would have wanted to implement, will have some lasting benefit,” he said. “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.”
Civil Service World sought a response to the IfG report from the DfE. It had not provided one at the time of publication.