How has it come to this? How have we reached the point where teachers and school leaders have such little confidence in the advice that their government is giving that, on a bank holiday weekend at the end of the Christmas holidays, we have ended up with complete chaos across the country?
Well, I can probably give you a bit of a clue. You just need to look back at how the Department for Education, and the government more broadly, has handled the school situation over the past 10 months. It’s been an endless stream of poor judgements, last-minute decision-making, U-turns and incomprehensible guidance. Frankly, it’s a wonder it’s taken until now for the system to fall apart.
Less than a week before all schools closed, back in March, there had been no guidance from the department: no suggestion of any need to put contingencies in place. Just days before the sudden announcement of the March lockdown, we were being told that we might need to “think about school closures” at some point.
If the department was making plans for the closures that were announced just 48 hours later, it showed no sign of it. Instead, schools were told to open for key workers based on a list that would not be available for another two days.
Coronavirus and schools: The first of many last-minute U-turns
After that came the free school meals fiasco. Once again, the government made announcements that it couldn’t see through – and saw one of the first of its last-minute U-turns as a result. Schools were left to answer phone calls from confused families trying to battle with a collapsing voucher system that we were constantly told was working just fine.
By early May, the attention soon turned to returning pupils to school. But, once more, the guidance was confused and the end goals unachievable. We were introduced to the new five-level warning system (long since abandoned) and alongside it were the five tests for reopening primary schools safely, including a falling R rate and falling death rates. Evidently that same logic isn’t being applied this week.
Even as schools opened for key year groups, the department managed to completely ignore the repeated warnings from school leaders and professional associations that a full opening in July simply wasn’t possible. As with so many things, the government preferred instead to wait until the truth could be avoided no longer before admitting as much.
Even then, parents were left with the confusing message that schools could bring back more pupils if they wished – as though some had plenty of staff and space going unused.
Chaos and contradictions
The pattern continued through the year: announcement of grand summer catch-up plans, rapidly abandoned as unworkable; chaos in secondary-school examinations, swiftly followed by U-turns as this system, too, was shown to be unworkable; 20,000-word guidance documents with gaping holes and riddled with contradictions.
By the autumn, we were told that we must have workable plans for online learning, while also keeping schools open for everyone, despite staff absences growing. Guidance was produced for all schools to plan for possible rotas and shutdowns, only to be quietly abandoned once more.
And so we reached December. Infection rates rising, staff costs through the roof, real danger in schools. And what did the DfE do? Threatened legal action against any school taking sensible steps to reduce risk in their communities.
It’s not a surprise to see that teachers and school leaders don’t have faith in the government to make sensible decisions on time: all the evidence of the past year has shown exactly the opposite. While schools have done all they can to maintain safe learning, the DfE has been a hindrance every step of the way.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979