For the long series of serious misjudgements about schools during the pandemic, the buck should stop with the secretary of state, says Bronwen Maddox
Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department of Education, has stepped down having been asked to do so. Gavin Williamson, his secretary of state should now follow. The misjudgements in education have been some of the worst the government has made since the start of the pandemic. They were avoidable, given the time available to plan. While they have not added to the total of those who have died because of the virus, they are serious in their impact on children’s education, the gap in achievement between social groups and the ability of the nation to get back to work.
At the heart of these misjudgements are decisions that could only be made by politicians, not civil servants. That is not to say the department and Ofqual, the exam regulator, are without blame – the extent of which will be scrutinised in the coming weeks – but it was not their role to make the key decisions that have produced this rolling debacle. The government, which has a record of blaming officials rather than itself, should accept that responsibility. Unless there are consequences for ministers of the decisions that are their responsibility, the UK’s principles of democratic accountability will become meaningless.
These date from the first weeks of the lockdown. If there is an overall mistake it is to have focussed on physical safety while undervaluing the education pupils have lost.
The government ordered schools to close with no clear direction or guidance on how they should conduct learning at a distance, either in what the online lessons should be or how pupils without technology could get access. Unions were not helpful, focussing on safeguarding not the loss of education, but the lack of a national plan was problematic. The result has been that the gap between pupils in high and low achieving schools has widened.
When the government ordered schools to accept some year groups from the start of June and yet to limit class sizes for social distancing, it failed to say how they should do it. For some schools it was impossible to take back pupils without more classrooms or teachers.
The catastrophe of the GCSE and A-level results stemmed from a decision that grade inflation should be avoided and a lack of regard for the injustices that Ofqual’s algorithm would produce, for individuals and social groups, as well as a failure to set up an extensive appeals process.
The U-turn on exam results after five days meant that universities had already filled up many places. That led to a scramble in which some would take more pupils (requiring more funding), some would force pupils to defer their places with a knock-on effect on 2021, and some would be left underfunded without enough pupils to fill their places.
Pupils are returning to school now with key decisions still not made: whether there will be exams (presumably yes, to avoid a repeat); when those will be (if the year is extended to make up for lost time), whether they will cover the whole syllabus, and whether grades will be comparable with previous years.
There is no plan yet for how to ensure standards in home-schooling, whose popularity has risen, or indeed how much to permit it.
None of these decisions was easy. But the government had the advantage of being able to see them coming, compared to many of the decisions it faced in health in the first few weeks of the emergency. That holds true above all for the exam results. Once the decision not to hold exams had been taken – itself, in hindsight, perhaps another mistake – the government had five months before the normal results announcement date to decide how to handle it. That could have included announcing results earlier to allow more time for appeals. One former regulator and MPs confronted the government with the likely problems many weeks before the final eruption.
The Institute for Government will analyse extensively the reasons for these mistakes. They include failure to consult enough on how to solve problems such as provision for online learning, and to prepare schools, teachers and parents for returning children to classrooms. But it is clear already that the problems began with a failure to put education high enough among other priorities, and to acknowledge the damage to children done by the absence and social contact at school as well as the impact on parents not able to return to work.
There must also be a question about whether the importance put on avoiding grade inflation stemmed from the weight put by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings on this, given that they had created the new, tougher exams when at the Department of Education. The government compounded the difficult task that it had set the department by insisting that it continue through the virus emergency with the extensive reforms underway in further education, higher education and teacher training.
The mistakes in education rank among the worst the government has made during coronavirus because of their impact as well as being avoidable. Most children will have been out of school for six months, a huge loss in learning and for many, a setback in the ability to learn. If children are not at school, many parents will find it hard to return to work. In its attempts to restart the economy, the government has been clear about its desire that people start eating out and going to shops again but has done less to prepare or encourage parents to send their children back to school.
The culpability of the department and Ofqual for the nature of advice given and decisions taken will be a matter for the public scrutiny, including by parliamentary committees, that will now begin. Ofqual’s chief executive, Sally Collier, stepped down on August 25. Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary of the Department for Education (who is on the board of the IfG), stepped down the next day. We do not know what questions the secretary of state asked or what advice they gave him – if that advice was wrong it may be reasonable for them to have stepped down. The scrutiny should look at the whole sequence of decisions in the light of international comparisons, from the decision to close schools and scrap exams (not every country did the latter), to the interrogation (or lack of it) of Ofqual’s algorithm, and the overwhelming emphasis in Ofqual’s remit on preserving the integrity of exam results.
But this is not a case where responsibility stops with officials, or even lies mainly with them. Right the way through, key decisions have been ones that only politicians could take, whether the secretary of state or the prime minister himself. It is clear that the prime minister took many of these decisions himself (such as the instruction to have children return in June) and there should be questions now about whether he took advice from the department or special advisers in coming to those views.
For the secretary of state’s part, he could have challenged the impulse to scrap exams. He should have pointed out to the prime minister that the demands to send children back to school in June clashed with the social distancing the government demanded that schools observe. He could have led an open discussion about what online learning schools should provide and grappled with the unions in their resistance to parts of that. He could have publicly championed the cause of education as the government fumbled its way out of lockdown. And he could have interrogated Ofqual about the results its model was going to produce, anticipated the unfairnesses, and produced a plan. Even now, he could be directing schools through the vast uncertainties of the coming year, and above all, encouraging parents in the importance of sending children back to school.
Instead, largely, there has been silence. That itself represents an evasion of the responsibility that has been his throughout. If there are no consequences for ministers when the performance of their department is found wanting, the system of democratic accountability that underpins government in the UK will be undermined. He should go.