Covid-19: Where is the plan for schools?

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Chaotic, blame-shifting, ineffective, incompetent – the government’s handling of education during the pandemic has hindered the recovery efforts of schools. An exasperated Paul Whiteman implores ministers to give us the support we need

Confusion reigns among policy-makers in Westminster, Stormont and Cardiff. In contrast, from the messages I’ve seen this week, NAHT members are demonstrating extraordinary levels of resolve and professionalism. Parents too are showing a remarkable amount of forbearance.

Not only are we all living in the shadow of coronavirus, but we are also all suffering from the government’s ineffective and incompetent approach to education policy during the pandemic.

Having made robust arrangements of their own, the very least that school leaders should expect is that the provisions put in place by local and national government are equally robust, and will stand up to the inevitable stress test that the autumn term will present.

The litany of government failings does not inspire confidence.

From the moment schools were first partially closed at the start of the coronavirus outbreak there have been problems with supplying free school meal vouchers and laptops.

Guidance on schools staying open during local lockdowns was published on a Friday night before a Bank Holiday. No one needs to be reminded of the fiasco of grading A levels and GCSEs. And of course, we all know that at the moment it is pretty much impossible to get a Covid test.

Although the prime minister has announced that restrictions would continue to be a feature of life for the next six months, it does not appear that the government has a fully realised plan for education that extends much beyond the next six days.

In schools, such a short-term approach with so little detail would be unthinkable, so I can understand why so many of you are so frustrated.

If, as seems likely, there will be no return to “normal” life before March next year, it would be ridiculous for Ofsted to begin routine inspections in January. Schools have far more important matters to deal with.

Governing bodies and local authorities will be holding schools to account for this work. Another layer of scrutiny from Ofsted, is, at best, unnecessary. At worst, it will get in the way of schools as they try to help pupils reacclimatise. Our efforts to win this argument at the heart of government have stepped up in recent days.

The NAHT has also increased our calls for clarity around exams and assessments. It is simply unacceptable that pupils and staff are still in the dark about this.

Ofqual says it is learning from other countries about how socially distanced exams can be managed, and the autumn series will provide lessons that can be applied to 2021.

Alternatives now under consideration include delayed papers and allowing pupils self-isolating on the date of their exam to sit it at a later date. They are also looking at online tests.

But we can ill-afford any more last-minute changes or muddled thinking from the government, and there are gaping holes in the strategy for the coming year.

Just because exams are not in the calendar until next summer, it would be a terrible mistake to think that we have until then to prepare. If there is even an outside chance we will need to use some form of data from centres to generate grades next year, schools need to make arrangements for this now.

The hard thinking necessary to come up with a contingency for 2021 seems to have barely begun, when schools really needed guidance and clarity weeks ago.

What is more, school leaders will be raiding their already stretched budgets to pay for extra soap, sanitiser, towels and other measures for some time yet. So, we have continued to demand that all of these measures, going back to the beginning of lockdown, need to be funded in full.

Right now, the pressure on the system, and on school leaders as individuals, is immense. School leaders have a heavy burden of responsibility this term. They are working with guidance that is often not definitive, trying to find the right balance between compassion and the regulations, and having to exercise rock-solid judgement, when the ground under their feet could shift at any moment.

Clearly, the failure of Covid testing sits at the heart of this. The inability of staff and families to successfully get tested means that children's education is being needlessly disrupted.

The government assured us that testing would be ready for the beginning of term – it was one of their own key safety requirements to have in place to enable children and teachers to return.

It is in no way unpredictable or surprising that the demand for Covid-19 tests spiked when schools fully re-opened. And yet the system is in chaos. It is unacceptable for this to happen when schools have put so much effort into getting their part of the plan right.

Now the prime minister has explicitly given a six-month timeframe for restrictions, my hope is that it will be impossible for the Department for Education and other departments to stand still. Some improvements to the issues I have outlined must surely come.

Our efforts, meanwhile, will be focused on holding the government’s feet to the fire to ensure that this happens. One thing is for sure, government blame-shifting will not keep children in school. The hard work of school teams will do that. Give schools the support they need

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Read his previous articles for SecEd via


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