An "avalanche" of "disorganised information dumps" from the government during the first wave of the Covid pandemic "severely impeded" schools' ability to manage the crisis, new research has found.
The study, conducted by the University of Cambridge and University College London and published today in the British Educational Research Journal, found that parents were often on the phone to schools to ask about new policy measures before heads even had a chance to read official guidance on changes.
The researchers identified more than 200 policy updates for schools released by the Department for Education between 18 March and 18 June 2020.
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This included 12 cases in which five or more documents were published in a single day.
As a result, heads were forced to navigate "a ridiculous amount of information", the study's lead author said, while policy measures were "typically announced to the public before official guidance even arrived".
In June 2020, a random sample of heads and other school leaders in England were asked to complete a survey about what information had informed their schools' responses to the pandemic, and any associated challenges and opportunities.
A total of 298 leaders responded, 29 of whom were later randomly selected for follow-up interviews.
The study found that 77 per cent of executive heads and 71 per cent of headteachers complained about "too many inputs and too much information".
Meanwhile, many criticised the government for a "lack of notice" that preceded new guidance.
"Society at large is being given information at the same time as schools," one headteacher said.
"There is no time to put our thoughts in place before parents start calling."
The researchers added: "Follow-up guidance, either from DfE, local education authorities, or MATs, tended to lag behind.
"The study finds this meant heads had to interpret key policies – such as those concerning safety measures, social distancing, in-person tuition for the children of key workers, or schools reopening – before further information arrived which sometimes contradicted their judgements."
During the three-month period concerned, the study found that the DfE published 74 separate guidance documents, each of which was updated three times on average.
The net result was that school leaders received an average of three policy updates per day, for 90 days, including at weekends.
Peter Fotheringham, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education and the study's lead author, said: "We expected the biggest challenge for school leaders during lockdown would be student welfare.
"In fact, time and again, the message we got was: 'I don’t know what's going to happen tomorrow, nothing is being shared in advance, and it's overwhelming.'
"It was uncanny how often the term 'avalanche' was used to describe the ridiculous amount of information they were getting.
"Policy measures were also typically announced to the public before official guidance even arrived, so parents were on the phone before heads even had a chance to read it. We think that with some simple fixes, a lot of this could be avoided in the future."
The new study follows another critical report into the government's handling of education policy during the Covid crisis published yesterday by the Institute for Government.
Mr Fotheringham also pointed to a "critical problem" with government communication, whereby "there was no way of telling what had changed from one update to the next".
"Leadership teams literally had to print off different versions and go through them with a highlighter, usually in hastily-organised powwows at 7am," he said.
"These things are very, very time-consuming to read, but have highly technical consequences. Even a small change to distancing rules, for example, affects how you manage classrooms, corridors and play areas. The release process made the translation of such policies into action incredibly difficult."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: "Repeatedly leaders were given information at the same time – or even later – than the public, leaving them unable to answer questions from concerned parents and staff. This isn't acceptable.
"School leaders and their teams worked all hours during the pandemic and moved heaven and earth for the children in their care – they could expect the government to do the same for them."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It comes as no surprise to hear school and college leaders' strong criticism of the government for its chaotic and haphazard approach to policy and communication during the first lockdown last year.
"Leaders faced a daily barrage of changing and often contradictory guidance and it is quite remarkable, and a testimony to their professionalism, that they managed to keep our schools and colleges running in the face of such head-spinning demands."
He added: "To make matters worse, throughout the pandemic new government guidance has regularly been leaked to the media ahead of it being provided to schools or alluded to in televised press conferences without further detail. It has been a complete shambles.
"With further disruption in our schools and colleges almost an inevitability when the autumn term begins, the government needs to learn fast from its previous mistakes and act decisively."
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Throughout the pandemic, our focus has been on keeping children in face-to-face education, and back in the classroom as soon as possible when the nature of the pandemic meant schools could only remain open for children of critical workers and vulnerable children.
“The course of the pandemic has led to swift decisions being taken to respond to changes in our understanding of the virus and action has had to be taken in the national interest.”