Schools faced ‘avalanche’ of confusing Covid advice, with 200 updates in three months

·3-min read
Pupils sanitise their hands as they arrive at Inverkip Primary School - Jane Barlow /PA
Pupils sanitise their hands as they arrive at Inverkip Primary School - Jane Barlow /PA

Schools were issued with more than 200 pieces of official guidance in three months in an “avalanche” of confusing government advice, a study has found.

Headteachers often received phone calls from parents demanding to know about policies in schools before the head had even read the new guidance online, according to researchers.

Academics from the University of Cambridge and University College London asked 300 teachers in England about their experiences of government communications during the first lockdown.

The Department for Education released 201 policy updates for schools between March 18 and June 18 2020 – which included 12 cases in which five or more documents were published in a single day for immediate interpretation.

More than three quarters (77 per cent) of executive heads and 71 per cent of headteachers complained about “too many inputs and too much information”.

Teachers told researchers they were “inundated” with updates that often contradicted earlier guidance, while others described an “avalanche” of policy updates.

Peter Fotheringham, a doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, and the study’s author, said: “We expected the biggest challenge for school leaders during lockdown would be student welfare.

“In fact, time and again, the message we got was: ‘I don't know what’s going to happen tomorrow, nothing is being shared in advance, and it’s overwhelming.’

“It was uncanny how often the term ‘avalanche’ was used to describe the ridiculous amount of information they were getting.”

He added: “Policy measures were also typically announced to the public before official guidance even arrived, so parents were on the phone before heads even had a chance to read it. We think that with some simple fixes, a lot of this could be avoided in the future.”

The study, published in the British Educational Research Journal, invited a random sample of school leaders in England to complete an anonymous questionnaire about what information had informed their schools’ responses to the pandemic.

Many school leaders expressed frustration with the lack of notice that preceded new government guidance, which they said they often heard about first through televised briefings or other public announcements.

School leaders had to interpret key policies – such as those concerning safety measures, social distancing, in-person tuition for the children of key workers, or schools reopening – before further information arrived as follow-up guidance tended to lag behind, the study found.

One head said: “Society at large is being given information at the same time as schools. There is no time to put our thoughts in place before parents start calling.”

During the three-month period, DfE published 74 unique guidance documents, each of which was updated three times on average.

School leaders received an average of three policy updates per day, for 90 days, including at weekends.

Mr Fotheringham said: “A critical problem was that there was no way of telling what had changed from one update to the next. Leadership teams literally had to print off different versions and go through them with a highlighter, usually in hastily organised pow-wows at 7am.

“These things are very, very time-consuming to read, but have highly technical consequences. Even a small change to distancing rules, for example, affects how you manage classrooms, corridors and play areas. The release process made the translation of such policies into action incredibly difficult.”

Headteachers accused ministers of pursuing a “chaotic” and “haphazard” approach to communication with schools during the first lockdown.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that headteachers faced a “daily barrage” of “changing and often contradictory guidance”, adding that it was “quite remarkable” that they managed to keep schools and colleges running in the face of such “head-spinning demands”.

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