It’s become something of an ongoing joke now that when the Department for Education promises guidance on a topic of vital importance, we should expect to receive it right at the last minute, and almost certainly outside office hours.
That was no different last week, when the guidance on how schools should manage the lockdown arrived less than nine hours before the lockdown was due to begin.
Give the department its dues: out of the goodness of its heart, it did give schools a grace period of two whole days to implement things. Thank goodness we’ve nothing else to be doing in schools. Apart, that is, from organising cover for ever-increasing numbers of staff who are isolating, filling in the gaps of the national track-and-trace system by doing their job for them when it comes to school pupils, and trying to maintain a Covid-secure workplace, while also filling tiny classrooms with dozens of people.
Coronavirus: What the government says, and what it really means
The trouble with a period of two days to prepare is that school leaders have a tendency to, well, prepare in that time.
So, when the government guidance said that we should only offer out-of-school clubs where they are needed to provide childcare for parents and carers, most schools quite rightly interpreted that as keeping breakfast and wraparound care open but ceasing extracurricular activities. After all, extracurricular activities are largely run on teacher goodwill, without recompense: they’re provided for the benefit of the pupils, not as childcare.
However, as is increasingly becoming clear, the department’s view is that schools are largely places of childcare provision, with education – and quite possibly health and safety – as secondary demands on our time.
So, when the DfE guidance advised schools to stop extracurricular clubs, schools did exactly as they’d been advised and contacted parents to stop extracurricular clubs. At which point, the DfE suddenly produced a clarification of its guidance – through its media blog, for some reason – telling us that we’d all misunderstood.
One of the earliest lessons that any teacher learns is that if one or two people misunderstand your instructions, then the issue is probably with them; if everyone misunderstands it, then the problem is with your instruction. Whatever the DfE intended to say in its guidance, it is evidently not what it has now decided it wants it to mean. Presumably, the DfE now imagines that heads will contact families again to uncancel the cancelled clubs? What a farce.
Gaslighting schools and teachers
It’s hard to know what causes such calamities at the DfE. Is it incompetence when it comes to articulating guidance? Is it that one arm of the department doesn’t know what the other is doing? Or is it simply the DfE passing the buck to schools when it realises that its decisions are unpopular? Some more modern folk might choose to call it “gaslighting”.
Whatever the cause behind the department’s tendency to provide unhelpful advice to schools, it was in full swing again on Friday, as civil servants provided the usual high standard of wisdom on how to tackle increasing levels of staff absence caused by self-isolation.
Apparently, the boffins at Sanctuary Buildings have come up with a solution: we should “employ supply teachers and other supply staff during this period”.
Of course, schools have no funding to meet these additional supply teachers’ wages, but should we read between the lines that the government will meet those costs? It seems unlikely.
Perhaps there will be a clarification about that next week? Perhaps what the DfE actually meant when it said “employ supply teachers” was “place additional burdens on your existing staff with no financial reward” – and we’ve all just misunderstood. Again.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979