An “avalanche” of confused and shifting Government guidance severely impeded schools during the first lockdown, headteachers have said.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London (UCL) found that parents were often on the phone about new policy measures before heads even had a chance to read official guidance on changes.
The Department for Education (DfE) 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.
The study, of nearly 300 school leaders in England, suggests that simple measures by the DfE – such as signalling in-line changes to policy updates or using a direct-line email system to schools – could have spared headteachers considerable time and stress during this critical period.
Asked about the challenges they faced, headteachers repeatedly cited “changing updates”, “clarity” and “time”.
More than three in four (77%) of executive heads and 71% of headteachers complained about “too many inputs and too much information”.
In follow-up interviews, participants referred to being “inundated” with Government updates that often contradicted earlier guidance, while others described it as 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, which has been published in the British Educational Research Journal, invited a random sample of school leaders in England to complete an anonymous questionnaire in June 2020 about what information had informed their schools’ responses to the pandemic and any associated challenges.
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 concerned, DfE published 74 unique guidance documents; each of which was updated three times on average.
The net result was that 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 powwows 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.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Repeatedly leaders were given information at the same time – or even later – than the public, leaving them unable to answer questions from concerned parents and staff. This isn’t acceptable.
“School leaders and their teams worked all hours during the pandemic and moved heaven and earth for the children in their care – they could expect the Government to do the same for them.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It comes as no surprise to hear school and college leaders’ strong criticism of the government for its chaotic and haphazard approach to policy and communication during the first lockdown last year.
“Leaders faced a daily barrage of changing and often contradictory guidance and it is quite remarkable, and a testimony to their professionalism, that they managed to keep our schools and colleges running in the face of such head-spinning demands.”
He added: “To make matters worse, throughout the pandemic new government guidance has regularly been leaked to the media ahead of it being provided to schools or alluded to in televised press conferences without further detail. It has been a complete shambles.
“With further disruption in our schools and colleges almost an inevitability when the autumn term begins, the Government needs to learn fast from its previous mistakes and act decisively.”
Kate Green, Labour’s 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.”
A DfE spokeswoman 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.”