Government’s ‘refusal’ to make contingency plans led to exams chaos, report finds

·3-min read
Students sit an exam - David Jones
Students sit an exam - David Jones

The “refusal” to make contingency plans for 2021 exams was the “most unforgivable” aspect of the Government’s mishandling of schools during the pandemic, a report has said.

Ministers did not learn lessons about school closures and exams following the first lockdown, which led to a case of “pause, rewind, repeat”, a paper by the Institute for Government (IfG) found.

Researchers described the first lockdown as “easily the most disruptive period in children's education since at least the start of the Second World War”.

The report said: “Its most important conclusion is that the most unforgivable aspect of what happened is not just the failure to make contingency plans in the summer of 2020 but the refusal to do so – when it was already obvious that fresh school closures might well be needed, and that exams might have to be cancelled again.

“Lessons were not learnt from the first lockdown, with the result that, for both school closures and exams, the story from July 2020 to Jan 2021 was a case of ‘pause, rewind, repeat’.”

It added: “Well into March 2021, and indeed beyond, pupils taking GCSEs, A-levels and BTECs remained unclear about precisely how they were to be assessed. At times it felt as though the school system was in chaos.

The report’s publication comes as thousands of students prepare to receive their A-level and GCSE results next week. The grades will be based on teachers’ predictions after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row owing to the pandemic.

The IfG report praises the “swift” decision to allow the children of key workers and the most vulnerable youngsters to attend school during lockdowns, adding that the supply of laptops for remote learning was slower than expected.

Researchers also highlighted the tensions between Downing Street and the Department for Education throughout the pandemic and the impact this had on disruption to children’s education.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, “appears not to have been directly involved in any of the key meetings ahead of the original decision to close schools in March 2020”.

The report goes on to say there was a “refusal” to trust local authorities and a failure to engage effectively with them, and their directors of public health.

The IfG reports a claim from Maggie Rae, president of the Faculty of Public Health, that at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, “the Department of Health did not even have the names and contacts for local directors of public health”.

Researchers noted the “dreadful communications” from the Government about schools as well as the “repeated declarations” on whether schools would open or close or whether exams would be held.

“The result was U-turn after U-turn, with pupils, parents and teachers left bewildered and floundering time and again,” the report said.

The report includes claims from a Number 10 source over Boris Johnson's approach to contingency planning.

It noted: “A No 10 source says that ‘the clear steer’ that officials received from the Prime Minister was not to make contingency plans. Schools were going to reopen. Exams would be held.

“The view was that ‘if you prepare for these things not happening, then the outcome is that they are far more likely not to happen ... people will look for the easy way out and take it’.

“According to this insider, 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. Which is a very powerful tool. But the virus doesn't listen to those messages.”

Nicholas Timmins, the report’s author, said: “Most countries faced a challenge over schooling that was unprecedented in modern times as the pandemic struck.

“Some early decisions in England were taken well. Some, which took longer than anyone would have wanted to implement, will have some lasting benefit.

“But the failure – indeed, the refusal – to make contingency plans over the summer and autumn of 2020 left pupils, parents and teachers facing a case of ‘pause, rewind, repeat’, not least over exams.”

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