On 22 December, while millions were frantically rethinking their Christmas plans following the introduction of new tier four restrictions, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the prime minister that schools would have to close in order to bring the latest surge in Covid infections under control. Against both the scientists’ advice and pressure from the Department of Health, Boris Johnson insisted no action was necessary.
Over the Christmas period, it became apparent to anyone who could read a graph that education settings would, indeed, have to close. Yet Johnson, and the hapless Gavin Williamson, continued to insist schools were safe and would remain open. They then allowed English schools to open for one day, enabling millions of children to mingle and transmit their holiday virus, before at last accepting reality and moving all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers to remote learning for at least the whole of this half term – creating last-minute chaos and confusion for teachers, parents and pupils themselves.
There have been many low points in the government’s handling of the pandemic, but this was surely the lowest. A total failure of leadership, symbolised by refusing to even decide whether to allow BTEC exams to go ahead this week, has been made worse by the absence of any serious contingency planning. Despite pleas from across the education sector last term for the Department for Education (DfE) to put in place a “plan B” for this very scenario, ministers complacently insisted it was not necessary – right up until the moment it very clearly was.
So much could have been done in the past few months to prepare for the return of remote learning: laptops could have been provided to hundreds of thousands more pupils last term; teachers could have been trained in designing and delivering online content; provision could have been made to support working parents who now find themselves juggling jobs with full-time home-schooling. But it wasn’t. So, what can be done now to give this cohort the best chance of long-term success?
Even if the DfE had been calmly planning another lockdown since September, their options would have been limited. We have schools for a reason. A teacher directly engaging with a class is a critical part of the learning process, and online content is valuable primarily when integrated with in-person delivery. If nothing else comes of the crisis, it may at least put to bed the oddly widespread belief that the “Victorian factory” model of schooling is outdated. There’s a reason classroom teaching has lasted so long.
Nevertheless, we could be in a better position. For a start, Ofcom estimates up to 1.78 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. The DfE has started distribution again, but the delay means the government is now playing catch-up. At this stage, a national campaign to get people to give old computers directly to local schools is probably the only way to sort this out in a reasonable timeframe.
But even those with equipment may not have internet access, or have it only via expensive mobile data plans. An immediate step to fix this should be taken by the telecoms industry, by “zero-rating” any online educational content to ensure it is free to all. This has the major advantage of requiring no bureaucracy or means-testing, and would be a good way for the big corporates which have benefited from the mass shift to online to show they are serious about giving back to society.
Of course, while technology is certainly necessary for remote learning, it is not sufficient. Many children do not live in circumstances which make home-learning viable: crammed into rooms with siblings and without support from parents struggling to cope. For this group, it is essential that they know they can still go to schools, which remain open for vulnerable pupils. In the first lockdown, this service was available but not widely used. Schools, with the support of local authorities and the government, need to be doing everything possible to get vulnerable pupils in, where there should be enough space for them to socially distance.
For those who have equipment and conditions suitable for learning, content is the next challenge. Schools could have been given far more guidance, training and time to prepare for fully online teaching. Some have spent time on this anyway and are offering a well-designed day for pupils. But it’s very variable. Oak National Academy – developed by a heroic group of teachers and seized upon by the DfE like a drowning man spotting a lifebelt – has produced high-quality content for those whose school provision is limited.
But even students who are able to benefit from this will learn less than they would have had they been at school. One study suggests that the first lockdown led to three months of learning lost on average, despite the best efforts of schools. (This is backed up by more robust, unpublished, analysis commissioned by the DfE.) Having failed to prepare for another lockdown, the DfE should start working immediately on an extensive catch-up plan. This needs to be targeted heavily at the poorest communities and should also include colleges and universities so they can provide remedial support in core subjects next year. There will be a brief window in which extra support can make a lifelong difference, so Number 10 needs to kick the Treasury in coughing up the necessary cash now.
Finally, we have the vexed question of exams. I fear the DfE and Ofqual will get caught up in a quixotic attempt to provide grades, via teacher assessment, to students in the absence of any meaningful way to compare performance. There is simply no way to moderate something that is not based on the same underlying assessment, and trying to do so could quickly turn into a bureaucratic mess to rival that of last summer.
Instead, everyone needs to acknowledge upfront that there is no way traditional grading can work and must focus on simpler, achievable ends. For A-level students, the goal is getting them on to an appropriate university course. This will need to be done quickly as universities are already well into the admissions process and will have to work together to ensure every student has a place guaranteed in advance of August. We have to avoid a situation where university places come down to a single missed grade awarded via a palpably unfair system. The only condition on these places should be a certificate of course completion, signed by their teacher, to ensure the cohort retain motivation up until the end of the year.
For GCSEs, again the primary focus should be on ensuring a sixth form or college place for all students before the summer. There is an argument for some grading here to help direct post-16 pathways – we don’t want young people to end up on courses they’re not prepared for – but this should be radically simplified to avoid teachers having to make impossibly fine-grained judgements, perhaps simply grading as “not at expected level”, “expected level”, and “above expected level”.
Mitigating the damage of these closures and cancellations will require a unified sector and serious leadership. For any of this to happen effectively, Gavin Williamson must be removed from office. No secretary of state has ever lost the trust of the profession so completely as Williamson has over the past year with his repeated and unapologetic failures. A new person in charge is a minimum requirement for rebuilding relationships that will be vital over the next few difficult months.
The government missed its chance to prepare for school closures and has done teachers, parents and pupils a disservice. It cannot now miss this one to minimise the damage.
Sam Freedman is a former senior adviser on schools at the Department for Education