Ministers urged to abandon 'dogmatic' approach to Covid plans

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

Ministers have been urged to stop being so “dogmatic” about their management of Covid-19 in schools after a week of chaos caused by a number of last-minute reversals.

School leaders have yet again been left angry and frustrated after prime minister Boris Johnson acted to close schools to the majority of pupils just 48 hours after insisting that they were safe to re-open.

There is further incredulity at the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic after the Department for Education (DfE) allowed millions of primary school pupils to head back into school on Monday, January 4, only to then tell them to stay home amid fears over the quickening spread of new variant of the virus.

Schools are now to remain closed until at least mid-February to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, with remote learning once again kicking in for the majority of pupils.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) acknowledged that the situation was “fast-moving”, but said that part of the problem is that ministers keep “boxing themselves into a corner by being so dogmatic about their plans” – even as those plans are “obviously unravelling”.

As evidence, Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, pointed to the legal threats at the end of last term as some schools tried to close early before the Christmas break.

Indeed, when the London borough of Greenwich tried to close schools early before Christmas it was forced to back down by the DfE only to be told to shut it schools one day into the new term.

Mr Barton said: “We are relieved the government has finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to move schools and colleges to remote education in response to alarming Covid infection rates.

“It is very frustrating that it issued legal threats to schools at the end of last term … and then made a series of chaotic announcements about the start of this term.”

The DfE began to scrap its re-opening plans on December 30 when it decided to delay the planned staggered start of term for secondary schools by two weeks and to close some primary schools in hotspot areas.

Throughout ministers have continued to insist at each opportunity that their plans would not be changing, including education secretary Gavin Williamson’s assertions on December 30 that the summer’s exams and school re-opening would go ahead.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said that he had “no doubt” that schools were safe to re-open when he appeared on the Marr Show on Sunday, January 3.

And perhaps summing up this “dogmatic” approach, the DfE insisted on Monday that vocational exams this month will go ahead before on Tuesday acting to make them optional for schools and colleges.

Meanwhile, when pressed on the issue Michael Gove said on Tuesday that GCSE and A level exams would now be cancelled this summer.

Mr Barton continued: “Everybody understands this is a fast-moving situation, but ministers have to stop boxing themselves into a corner by being so dogmatic about their plans even as those plans are obviously unravelling.

“We hope the government will now work constructively with the profession to bring all pupils back into schools and colleges as soon as it is safe to do so, with timely information and guidance, and that it avoids its usual shambolic approach.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, which reminded its members earlier this week of their legal rights not to have to work in an unsafe environment, echoed the concerns about ministers’ attitudes.

Speaking on Monday, she said: “This is a crisis point for the nation, and a great deal of what got us here should not simply be blamed on new strains of the virus.

“The government has had eight months to prepare for a renewed period of remote learning, and for alternatives to exam assessment at GCSE and A Level, but it has not used that time wisely or well. Gavin Williamson has become an expert in putting his head in the sand – ignoring the mounting evidence of Covid-19 transmission in schools to education professionals and into pupils’ households.

“SAGE – Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – told ministers on December 22 that even a lockdown of the same severity as last spring would not be enough to reduce the R rate below 1. It is incomprehensible that, with this information, the prime minister even yesterday (Sunday, January 3) continued to declare that schools were safe. These are not the words of a leader who is ‘following the science’.”

  • DfE: Guidance: Critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings, January 5, 2021: http://bit.ly/3niRI4U
  • DfE: Guidance for full opening: Schools, last updated December 30, 2020: http://bit.ly/38tdOfd


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