Clear communication – despite chaotic DfE guidance – is secret to schools' success during Covid-19

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Clear communication from school leaders was one of the biggest factors in both staff and parents feeling confident in handling the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A wide-ranging research report has examined the operation of the UK education system during the pandemic to date.

The study, Shock to the System: Lessons learned from Covid-19, paints a chaotic picture that will be familiar to many school leaders with regards to the impact of the often last-minute guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) during the pandemic.

It finds that only 2.5 per cent of school leaders felt supported by the DfE during Covid-19.

School leaders will not want to be reminded of how much of the DfE guidance last year arrived late at night, as schools were due to break-up, or just days before schools returned in September.

The report states: “The lack of communication and effective direction from the DfE left headteachers confused, forcing them to make decisions based on what they felt was insufficient advice and incomplete guidelines.

“There were significant problems in communication between government and other communities.”

One school leader told the researchers: “I know there are points at which I get more guidance, and I physically look at it, I can’t even bring myself to open it right now. Because you just get saturated with it.”

The study has been compiled by researchers from the Cambridge Partnership for Education and the EDUCATE ed-tech initiative and looks to learn the lessons from the pandemic – for policy-makers, schools and ed-tech providers.

A key, if unsurprising, finding is that communication is vital. Staff who felt that communication from school leadership was clear were five times more likely to feel confident about their school’s handling of the disruption.

Meanwhile, families who had good communication with their child’s school during the first lockdown were 10 times more likely to feel confident about home-schooling than those who thought contact was “inadequate”.

The report gives further insight into the impact of the pandemic on families living in disadvantage, single-parent families and those with children who have SEN.

While falling behind was a concern for 77 per cent of single parents, it was a concern for just 54 per cent of non-single parents; six in 10 single parents reported financial concerns, compared to 16 per cent of non-single parents.

The digital divide also features heavily. One teacher described how, in some families, up to five children were vying for the use of one laptop, and many didn’t have a printer or some other device that could help them to access learning: “If they let the school know, they were given paper copies of things, but they had to be able to get to school to let us know.”

The report adds: “Teachers from disadvantaged schools reported that more than a third of their class would not have adequate access to technology. Twenty-one per cent of teachers in state schools reported that their school is providing pupils with laptops or other devices to mitigate inequality gaps (secondary 31 per cent, and primary 11 per cent). However, affluent schools were still able to provide more laptops than disadvantaged schools (28 vs 15 per cent).”

It comes as the government’s laptop scheme, almost one year after its launch, finally reached the milestone of one million devices having been delivered or dispatched – 1,055,745 laptops and tablets to be exact as of February 16.

However, this compares to figures from Ofcom, which show that 1.78 million children do not have access to a laptop or computer at home – this is nine per cent of all households with children and does not take into account those without sole access to a device.

Elsewhere, in the report families with children who have SEN were particularly disadvantaged, with 68 per cent saying they found home learning challenging. Only 28 per cent agreed that their child’s educational placement had provided very good support and 40 per cent felt they received no support from educational or other agencies.

This echoes recent research from special needs association Nasen, which found that three-quarters of SENCOs said that their school experienced challenges with providing virtual support for children with SEN during the first lockdown.

Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at UCL Knowledge Lab and director of EDUCATE, said: “A supreme effort was made by many people to secure learning for large numbers of students. Parents, teachers, edtech companies and school leaders alike were quick to learn and act. Government, however has been much slower to learn and to respond. Now is the time for them to listen, learn and build much better connections with and between the different groups in the education ecosystem.”


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