GCSEs 2021: Was DfE in dark on PM's exam announcement?

Why reported DfE ignorance about Boris Johnson's exams statement may reveal a wider truth about who runs education
5th January 2021, 7:44pm
Amy Gibbons

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GCSEs 2021: Was DfE in dark on PM's exam announcement?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/gcses-2021-was-dfe-dark-pms-exam-announcement
Gcses & A Levels 2021: Did The Dfe Know That Boris Johnson Was About To Cancel Exams On Monday Because Of The Coronavirus?

The Department for Education was left out of the loop on Downing Street's decision to announce that exams would be scrapped for a second year running, Tes understands.

Shortly before the nation sat down to watch Boris Johnson's televised address last night, officials in Sanctuary Buildings still had no idea that the prime minister was about to announce that this year's GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled, sources say.

The DfE had known of the prime minister's intention to scrap the 2021 exams, Tes understands, and had pushed back against the proposals.

But officials in the department are said to have been blindsided by Mr Johnson's speech on Monday night. As far as they knew, until they saw the prime minister's announcement, no decision had yet been made - at least, they had not been asked to sign off on anything.


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The usual routine would be for the DfE to have been expected to negotiate wording for the statement with Number 10 in the afternoon and signed off on it - if reluctantly - before the news was delivered to the nation. But sources say this did not happen.

GCSE and A-level exams: 'Lack of communication' between No 10 and the DfE

Their account chimes with a report from a Westminster lobby journalist who tweeted that yesterday that the department held an all-staff meeting of civil servants, in which they were told there were no plans to close schools or cancel exams.

There was an all staff meeting of civil servants at the Department of Education today where they were told there was no plans to close schools and no plans to cancel exams.

Hearing there will now be another tomorrow morning, presumably to row back entirely on all of it.

- John Johnston (@johnjohnstonmi) January 4, 2021

Some have suggested that the lack of communication across Whitehall led to tempers soaring.

"Rage between No 10 and DfE tonight," one source told Tes on Monday evening.

"DfE furious they're out of the loop and looking like idiots."

Up to a point, Tes understands that the DfE and Number 10 had been roughly on the same page - at least when it came to the issue of closing schools.

While the Department of Health and Social Care was reportedly fighting to shut all primaries last week, both the DfE and Number 10 decided to stick to their guns, initially, sources say.

But it is suggested that at some point the departments began to diverge on the exams policy.

"It appears that there was a split between Number 10, that thought it's just not remotely practical to say we can have exams, and the DfE...[which] wanted to keep exams," a source said.

Regardless of how or when the split happened, however, it was always destined to end the same way for the DfE, Tes understands, with Number 10 in the driving seat.

"Number 10 has its way," a source said.

"Realistically, if Number 10 makes a decision, like, 'That's it, fine, OK, I don't like it but that's the decision. So be it.'

"At some point, ultimately, Number 10 decides these things and the department just has to suck it up."

And looking beyond yesterday's announcement, little has changed, according to reports from a DfE stakeholder meeting this morning.

Following the "mainly chaotic" meeting, a source told Tes that it is "clear DfE ain't driving things and is just reacting".

The DfE was approached for comment.

 

 

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