Education secretary Gavin Williamson was not "directly involved" in any key meetings ahead of mass school closures last March, a damning new report into the government's response to the Covid crisis says.
It is "clear" that a series of "crucial" decisions on education policy during the pandemic were taken by Downing Street, including both the initial shutdown of schools and the ill-fated proposals for all primary pupils to return to the classroom before schools broke up for the summer last year, according to analysis from the Institute for Government (IfG) published today.
Following conversations with government and sector insiders, the IfG suggests that "nobody" in the Department for Education – whether ministers or civil servants – believed it was possible to bring all primary pupils back before the summer holidays, but the plan was "insisted on" by Downing Street.
And it says that while the education secretary and prime minister did "debate" the "outline plan" for the return to school in June 2020, the IfG understands that Mr Williamson's case for prioritising Year 5 and 6 pupils over younger children who had less capacity to cope with social distancing was "blown out of the water" by Downing Street.
The institute's report says the government’s "refusal" to make contingency plans for schools and exams in the summer of 2020 or in the past academic year was the "most unforgivable aspect" of its education response to the crisis.
And it includes claims that the government neglected the option of using local councils to distribute free school meals during the crisis because "ministers hated local government and they wanted central control".
The report adds: "There was never any serious likelihood of funding local authorities [on free school meals], despite that being 'the obvious thing to do' in the words of one DfE insider."
The IfG think tank said its findings were based on the public record, two "off-the-record roundtables" – one on school closures and openings and one on exams – and some additional interviews.
Covid and schools: Gavin Williamson out of the loop?
The report portrays the education secretary as being absent from some of the most crucial decisions of the pandemic to date.
It refers to relations between the DfE and Downing Street as "damaging", citing claims that there was a "feeling" the education department was "not up to standard".
"It is clear that some of the crucial decisions were, in fact, taken in No 10, and Williamson appears not to have been directly involved in any of the key meetings ahead of the original decision to close schools in March 2020," the report says.
Mr Williamson was reportedly also overruled in the summer, when the government was debating how to reopen schools to more pupils.
While Downing Street wanted all primary children back in the classroom before the end of term, the report says school leaders and unions warned that younger pupils should not return because they could not be expected to understand social distancing. This view, the IfG says, was backed by the education secretary.
"A No 10 insider says Williamson did robustly make that case," the report says.
However the IfG's findings suggest Mr Williamson was left out of the loop when the final decision on the June return was made by Downing Street.
"Just ahead of the final announcement, those being consulted believed they had an agreement that Years 5 and 6 would go back, but not the younger pupils," the report says.
"As that went into No 10, however, 'it was all blown out of the water', according to Geoff Barton [general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders]."
Mr Barton is quoted as saying: "I had sight of what Boris was going to say on Saturday morning, the day before he said it. We had strong reservations. We said that Reception and Year 1 were the least likely to understand social distancing. We kept making the point that Years 5 and 6 would be better."
The IfG adds: "In [the] end, according to both No 10 and DfE sources, the decision was taken without Williamson present."
According to one multi-academy trust leader quoted in the report, the DfE was therefore left to make the case for a policy "it just did not believe and which it knew was wrong".
Strained relations with local government
The IfG also points to a strained relationship between the DfE and local authorities, which it suggests fuelled poor communication and led to confusion over who had authority over key decisions.
One DfE insider is quoted as saying: "My ministers absolutely hate local government. They hate it because far too much of it is Labour. They believe local government is stuffed full of progressives who do not believe in phonics.
"The role of local authorities in education is a very contested space, and the whole point of the academy programme is to get schools off councils. The idea that we would use local government to manage anything that we did not have to was complete anathema."
The report also quotes a senior director of public health in the Midlands, who said the DfE's strategy was "very, very top-down".
"Their relationship with schools is that 'we will tell you something, and you will do it'," they said.
"Furthermore, they think of schools as units, while we see them as part of the community."
The IfG suggests that an aversion towards local government control was behind the DfE's decision to take charge of free school meals distribution – even though the "obvious" choice was to enlist councils' help.
"The education department considered four options: passing money to eligible parents and children through Universal Credit and tax credits; funding local authorities, or directly funding schools; and a national scheme," the report says.
"There was never any serious likelihood of funding local authorities, despite that being 'the obvious thing to do' in the words of one DfE insider."
This DfE source is quoted as saying: "[Local authorities] were much closer to the action, and there are 150 of them. They have much more capacity than the department. But ministers hated local government and they wanted central control."
The report adds: "So the decision was for a national voucher scheme, using Edenred, which had an existing framework contract with government that covered employee benefits and which included the delivery of gift vouchers."
But despite an approach that has been "highly centralised and close to 'one size fits all'" for the "great bulk" of the pandemic, the IfG suggests that confusion has remained over who makes the final call on certain decisions.
Confusion over decision making
"In June 2021, with the Delta variant on the march, one public health director said school heads in her area, along with the regional health protection team, had all agreed that they wanted to reinstate mask-wearing in school," the report says.
"Even at this late stage in the pandemic, she reported that: 'We could not even establish who was the decision-maker. Was it DfE? Was it the Joint Biosecurity Centre? We could not even get an agreement about who was going to make the decision.'"
The IfG concludes: "Many difficulties were to arise from the government's handling of schools during the pandemic.
"A highly centralised approach to dealing with 24,000 schools. Tensions between No 10 and DfE. A refusal to trust local authorities and a failure to engage effectively with them, and their directors of public health, in ways that might have allowed a more nuanced and better response. Dreadful communications. Repeated declarations that schools would open or close, or that exams would be held – despite the evident uncertainties – until reality struck.
"The result was U-turn after U-turn, with pupils, parents and teachers left bewildered and floundering time and again."
A DfE spokesperson said: "The pandemic had a huge impact across society and especially in education. We want to thank teachers, parents and pupils for their resilience and flexibility over the last 18 months.
"We have acted swiftly at every turn to minimise the impact on children's education and wellbeing and help keep pupils in face-to-face education as much as possible.
"We provided 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged students, funded Oak National Academy to provide video lessons and made sure students could receive exam grades that helped them progress to the next stage of education or work.
"Through the tutoring revolution that will see pupils receive up to 100 million hours of free tuition, summer schools and our investment in the teaching profession, we are working with schools to deliver ambitious catch-up plans so the children and young people who have been most disadvantaged during the pandemic have the support they need to catch up on their lost learning."