Boris Johnson’s attempt to “bluff” his way through the Covid pandemic left the government without any contingency plans for school closures or the scrapping of exams, according to a damning new report.
The Institute for Government (IfG) think tank said the “single biggest issue” for education had been the failure in the summer of 2020 to learn from previous errors and to prepare for further waves of the virus.
Its report claimed the prime minister deliberately ordered officials not to draft fall-back plans, a blunder that later led to GCSEs and A-levels being cancelled just months before they were due to take pace.
The IfG said the government’s “refusal” to carry out vital contingency planning was the “most unforgivable” aspect of its handling of the pandemic for schools.
The think tank laid the blame at the door of both Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson, whose pandemic response was characterised by a “wild optimism”.
The failures listed in the report include:
- That there was no plan for school closures in March 2020. According to one official: ‘Obviously it would have been better if we’d had a plan to take off the shelf. You wouldn’t want to do this in 48 hours or less’
- ‘Damaging’ relations between No.10 and DfE - crucial decisions were taken by No.10 without the direct involvement of Willamson, who ‘appears not to have been directly involved in any of the key meetings ahead of the original decision to close schools in March 2020’
- ‘Dreadful communication’ - between mid-March and the end of May 2020 no fewer than 148 new guidance documents, or updates to existing material, were issued to schools, ‘putting schools under pressure’
- ‘The credibility-shedding’ decision to announce that all primary pupils would return by the summer
- Williamson’s failure on 31 March 2020 to consult exams regulator Ofqual that exams would be cancelled and pupils given calculated results - leading to the ‘algorithm’ that was criticised for penalising disadvantaged pupils
- Williamson being unable to spell out how GCSEs, A-levels and BTecs would be assessed in January 2021, beyond the slogan that it was ‘time to trust teachers, not algorithms’
The department of education (DfE) hit back at the report, pointing to guidance published in August 2020 on how to manage future covid outbreaks in schools and a letter to Ofqual in October regarding exams as proof it was planning ahead.
But the think tank quoted a No.10 source who said officials had been given a “clear steer” from Johnson not to make any contingency plans for the months ahead, despite the deep uncertainty about the Covid situation going into the autumn months.
According to the source, the view in government was that “if you prepare for these things not happening, then the outcome is that they are far more likely not to happen” and that the prime minister’s “default is to bluff”.
The source added: “To talk up things to such an extent that they will happen through the force of his own personality. Which is a very powerful tool. But the virus doesn’t listen to those messages.”
The report said Williamson’s certainty as early as June 2020 that schools would reopen in September and that exams would be held in 2021 was a cause of frustration among union leaders who wanted a plan B to fall back on.
In the end there was a return for schools in September and further confusion in the new year when some primary schools were opened and then told to close again on the same day on 4 January, in line with the national lockdown.
“Throughout 2020, not just the prime minister but education ministers and in particular Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, seemed determined to appear to be in control of events that they could not in fact control,” the report said.
“There were repeated assertions that this or that would happen – that test kits would be available in schools in September, for example, or that schools absolutely would reopen in January 2021, or that exams would definitely be held in 2021 – up to the point where they did not happen, forcing last-minute U-turns.
“That did not change until 2021 when a ‘roadmap’ driven rather more by data than dates was finally adopted – an approach that finally began to acknowledge the uncertainties and share them with the public, parents and teachers.”
“The prime minister’s default is to bluff. To talk up things to such an extent that they will happen through the force of his own personality”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green criticised the government for “dismissing” the party’s calls for an exams contingency plan last autumn, resulting in a second year of “exams chaos” for pupils.
“It is clear the responsibility for this lies not just with the failing education secretary but with the prime minister himself,” she said.
“Boris Johnson must own up to his failings, and urgently set out the support that will be available to pupils, parents and teachers on results day to ensure no young person loses out on future opportunities due to his failed pandemic response.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This report highlights many of the frustrations school leaders felt during the pandemic.
“I have never understood the failure to make contingencies for exams in the face of the obvious risk and whole profession calling for them.
“Yesterday NAHT called for clarity and contingencies for the 2022 exam series to be published by the start of term. Let’s see if the government shares the same appetite to learn that our young people do.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Contrary to the claims in this report, contingency plans for restrictions on schools opening in the 21/22 academic year were first published in August 2020, and contingency plans for qualifications in 2021 were first discussed with Ofqual in October 2020.
“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.”