Staff in England overwhelmed by more than 200 pieces of guidance issued in first 90 days of pandemic
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian
Teachers across England were overwhelmed by a ‘ridiculous’ blizzard of rules and documents issued by the Department for Education (DfE) during the coronavirus pandemic, alongside major announcements made through the media or press conferences, according to a study.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and University College London found that the DfE issued more than 200 pieces of guidance in the first 90 days of the pandemic. starting from 18 March 2020, including a dozen days when the department issued at least five separate pieces of guidance.
Headteachers told the researchers that the DfE’s multiple documents often called for immediate action, with some arriving at weekends or at night, creating a minefield of confusing or overlapping advice which was sometimes contradicted by other statements or updates from the DfE and various arms of the government.
Peter Fotheringham, the report’s lead author, said, “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.”
Rather than safeguarding the welfare and education of their pupils, headteachers said they were left to untangle the morass of rules issued by the DfE, especially in the first months after schools were closed to most pupils.
Fotheringham said that new policies were sometimes announced to the public before official guidance had even arrived, “so parents were on the ‘phone before heads even had a chance to read it”.
The study, to be published in the British Educational Research Journal, found that the DfE caused problems by failing to clearly show which parts of a policy or guidance had been amended when it made changes, with more than 70 new policy documents each being updated three times on average.
“Leadership teams literally had to print off different versions and go through them with a highlighter, usually in hastily organised meetings at seven am. These things are very, very time-consuming to read, but have highly technical consequences,” Fotheringham said.
The research follows a damning report by the Institute for Government that revealed how ministers, including Boris Johnson, refused to allow civil servants to draw up contingency plans to protect schools in the event of a second lockdown earlier this year.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said “The Conservatives have operated in panic mode throughout this crisis, with a complete lack of planning leading to confusing, contradictory guidance that has harmed kids’ educations. The abject failure of Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson to provide clear leadership has compounded the chaos within the education system. This chaos is now infecting our recovery with Boris Johnson’s failing to stand up for children’s catch up.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the new report confirmed that the government had been “a major source of stress” for school leaders. “Obviously, uncertainty and frequent changes couldn’t be entirely avoided during such an unprecedented situation – but the lack of timely and straightforward advice for schools from the DfE caused real problems,” he said. “The success of schools was in spite of government, not because of it.”
A spokesperson for the DfE said “Throughout the pandemic our focus has been on keeping children in face-to-face education, and back in the classroom as soon as possible when the nature of the pandemic meant schools could only remain open for children of critical workers and vulnerable children.
“The course of the pandemic has led to swift decisions being taken to respond to changes in our understanding of the virus, and action has had to be taken in the national interest.”
Case study: ‘DfE advice leached away at our confidence’ – Jules White headteacher of Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex
It’s no surprise that the research from Cambridge University confirms the views shared by virtually every headteacher in England that the deluge of guidance sent to schools by the Department for Education throughout the pandemic was ‘overwhelming’. Any long-held belief that the DfE was struggling to lead schools effectively was underlined by its woeful attempt to guide schools through the COVID crisis in a coherent and credible manner.
On a daily basis, headteachers were bombarded by directives and instructions that changed what felt like hour by hour. Often I was expected to deliver ‘immediate actions’ on behalf of 1,500 students and 150 staff – only for that advice to be changed just as the previous guidance was being read, digested and enacted.
Over time, senior colleagues and I became exhausted trying to understand, and then implement, reams and reams of highly technical and detailed guidance. Along with other headteachers, I craved clarity and certainty so that I could lead my whole school community decisively and safely. Instead, the ever-changing advice from the DfE leached away at our confidence and organisational ability.
The real low point came at Christmas. After delivering a superb service during the autumn term, heads were then told on 22 December that they were now responsible for mass student testing for the start of January. Colleagues and I worked throughout the holiday period trying to prepare for this huge task, which carried significant responsibilities in terms of keeping our staff and students safe. We were ill-equipped to do so and often learned more from social media and news leaks than from the DfE itself.
After a draining period, the first day of term came – and the DfE and government changed its mind for the umpteenth time; all schools were closed and reverted back to wholesale remote learning.
Of course, nobody underestimates the scale of the challenges faced by ministers and civil servants, but schools were given a very raw deal by the DfE. For many years headteachers like me have not been trusted to deliver effectively by those in power but when the chips were down we came through and did a job that made parents, pupils and colleagues feel safe and well led.
If only the same were true of our political leaders.