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From the file

The Vaccine | Our way out of the coronavirus pandemic has been discovered – but not yet delivered.

Schools are safe?

Wednesday 13 January 2021

As the vaccine rolled out, Britain’s schools had to lock up – again. But the process was far from smooth.


The decision to close English schools became inevitable on 22 December. That was the day when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) gave advice that, thanks to the new variant of the coronavirus, there was no escaping a hard March-style national lockdown.

The panel of advisers told ministers: “it is highly unlikely that measures… in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.” Given the acceleration of the virus, there was little hope of keeping classrooms full.

The actual decision, however, came on 4 January – the evening after the first day of term. And in the few weeks between those dates, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, shredded the credit he had with school leaders, local government, officials in his own department, and politicians from across the country.

Williamson has been a firm advocate of keeping schools open. Just the day before the SAGE advice was published, he laid out plans for reopening schools that would have seen every pupil return to the classroom by this week. In the case of secondary schools, this would be accompanied by frequent tests, so as to stem any outbreaks early. Just a week before, he had warned two London councils off seeking to move their schools to remote learning for a few days. 

Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education

But the issue that has caused him damage with the sector he leads was not his resistance to moving teaching online – an instinct shared by lots of teachers. It was the decisions taken en route to class closure. 

On 31 December, the day when SAGE’s recommendations were made public,  Williamson announced a delay to secondary school reopening. At the same time, he said, most primary schools should go back on 4 January. 

Not everywhere, though: they would stay closed in much of Essex and Kent, and a few hotspots elsewhere across the south and east of England. And, most contentiously, they would not ask all London boroughs to close. The capital city, the centre of the English outbreak, was not being asked to stay fully shut.

This decision on partial closure inside London is the one that puzzles every sector leader. “You think you’d lose your ability to be shocked by the Department [for Education]”, one school chain leader told me. “You’d be wrong.” 

This decision was never implemented, but has been cited to me again and again as a key reason why we enter the next phase of this crisis with a school system that does not trust Williamson.

It is hard to state how baffled the 31 December plan for London left leaders and teachers. First, because the broader scheme – to reopen primary schools to in-person teaching in ten of London’s 33 education authorities on 4 January – was released without consultation. Teachers and leaders found out the plans from Twitter.

Georgia Gould, chair of the city-wide London Councils group, explains: “That list that the DfE published came completely out of the blue. We had terrified communities and staff who were asking: ‘Why is it safe to open in those boroughs?’ And we didn’t have an answer because we hadn’t been consulted.”  

Second, it is still impossible to establish how the ten were chosen. They were not grouped together geographically. The decision was, the department said, based on an analysis of local disease prevalence, its speed of growth and local hospital capacity. As Gould, who is also the leader of Camden Council, says, however: “We look at the virus data and the hospital data every single day. And we cannot explain why those ten boroughs were on that list.” 

Gould’s Camden was asked to open. Westminster, its neighbour with lower case rates, was not. Hospital capacity offers little further help to understanding the pattern.

In any case, the whole formula misunderstands the particular circumstances of London public services. 

London schools, more than schools elsewhere, do not merely serve their boroughs. Ed Davie, the cabinet member for schools in Lambeth, says: “We bring in about a fifth of the children in our schools from other boroughs – and send out a fifth to other boroughs”. If you want to stop children in one London borough from mixing, you need to close schools in the nearby boroughs, too.

What’s more, hospitals are not organised on a borough level – and, in any case, they share facilities. Patients go where there is space. You cannot really speak of “Lambeth” as having a certain amount of hospital space. The amount of space in a local London hospital is much less important during the pandemic than the overall level of capacity in the city’s hospitals.

Officials told council leaders that similarly afflicted boroughs sharing local hospitals were being treated differently in some cases because they judged that local hospitals could handle elevated spread in one borough, but not in both of them. The implication, councillors felt, was that the Department for Education saw school closure as an emergency weapon only to be used to reduce the viral spread to below the level at which hospitals would collapse – but only in those circumstances. Having very elevated coronavirus rates would not justify school closure while the hospitals were not flooded.

“We’re in the slightly odd position that if our hospitals were bigger, some ministers would just let the virus run a little wilder,” one hospital manager wistfully put it to me. A spokesman for the education secretary says that the list was drawn up on the advice of Public Health England and the Department of Health. When Tory MPs sought clarification from the health ministry about this strategy, however, queries were sent back to the DfE.

London Tories started to apply pressure on the department. David Simmonds, a Conservative MP for a north-west London seat, says: “I have supported keeping schools open earlier this year, even if it was hard, because I could see the evidence to support it. But it was hard to follow the evidence for those decisions. The evidence that justified schools being open melted… in the face of evidence from local public health professionals. We need to be consistent in providing assurance and retaining the confidence of mums and dads.”

On 2 January, under pressure from all sides, there was a u-turn for London. The DfE backed down, and announced that all London schools would operate remotely. Most other primaries, though, would still reopen. Civil servants rang around to remind those head teachers of their obligations.

There was, by then, pressure from elsewhere. The National Education Union was raising concerns about the safety of a large number of schools. The head teachers’ unions were preparing court action, too. 

But the whole argument was curtailed. On the evening of Monday 4 January, the government u-turned for the whole country, announcing seven weeks of closures for all schools. The decision was not made in the DfE. It was Downing Street that announced schools would shut when England moved up to the highest threat level. 

A new school term begins in January 2021

Teachers say that, by waiting so late, the decision forced thousands of primaries to open for one day – creating further household mixing in thousands of primary schools. They also robbed schools of time to prepare for seven weeks of online learning. And teachers who might have spent the Christmas break preparing to go remote had been working through unwieldy plans for in-school virus testing.

The department also announced that summer examinations would be cancelled. That decision was unavoidable – but, after months of saying otherwise, it was dropped on schools who do not know what now follows, nor what they are supposed to be doing to assess their own pupils in lieu of exams, nor how to prepare them for whatever is coming.

The Department for Education says: “The education secretary has acted consistently in the interests of children and young people throughout the pandemic and has worked to keep them in the classroom wherever possible, to support their development and wellbeing…. Swift decisions have been consistently taken to respond to changes in our understanding of the virus.

“We will continue to do everything possible to support young people’s education, including providing over one million laptops and tablets for those who need them, and working to reopen schools as soon as possible.”

According to the pollster Teacher Tapp, 92 per cent of teachers say Williamson should resign his post. But some of these decisions were not his. The view from the department is that they were putting in place careful plans for phased reopening and adjusting them in response to reasonable pressure – but that was overtaken by the escalation of the virus threat level. A sector leader who has been working with Williamson recently says that “The defence of Gavin is that he is being gazumped all the time by Downing Street.”  

One person who has been working with Williamson in the past few months told me: “One of the things that’s been very obvious is how little influence he has over the conduct of affairs. He does what he’s told.” Another said: “It would be fine if there was a prime minister with a plan – but we don’t [have that].”

Boris Johnson waits in line to wash his hands during a visit to a primary school in June 2020

A constant theme from officials is that Williamson’s overriding ambition is to be loyal; the education secretary sees his role as being to operationalise Johnson’s ideas. Since the pandemic started, that has created an iron focus on keeping schools open. 

A lot of officials and sector leaders say he has an “obvious” lack of interest in education – and is desperate to get back to being defence secretary.  A spokesman for Williamson disputes this: “He sees education as an area where you can deliver tangible evidence of levelling-up within an electoral cycle. He has reforming ideas. His wife and brother are both educators. He is very passionate about reforming further education, in particular.” They note he is pushing through long-sought reforms to university admissions.

But Williamson does often ruefully bring up events from his previous role in government, from which he was fired by Theresa May after being accused of leaking classified information (an offence he denies). Two people have noted that his mental geography of the UK is based on which military bases are nearby. 

While the DfE has been sidelined, some officials believe this is self-inflicted. A person leading a portion of the department’s work says that while its officials and ministers “learn of decisions at the 11th hour, they also aren’t really offering their own plans that could take decisions in another direction”. Several officials have said that this is, in part, because Williamson is so single-minded in his pursuit of the prime minister’s agenda. They feel he is suspicious that some of their contingency planning is, in truth, a smokescreen for shifting to other plans.

The closed gates of a primary school in east London, January 2021

Still, the decisions on the ten London boroughs were so hard to justify that it is difficult to understand how anyone could have made them. It is clear that they were utterly determined to keep as many schools open as possible – but why those particular ten?  

Sam Freedman, a former adviser to Michael Gove, a former Tory education secretary, says: “I find it extremely difficult to believe that any senior person, or any person with any knowledge at all about schools or London, could have looked at that map and thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’”

Part of the problem may be morale. Officials have become nervous of coming forward with plans on some issues – particularly when it involves school closure, a political third rail. One senior official says: “I don’t blame colleagues for not coming forward with ideas. Frankly, you might as well let [ministers] push their agenda, fail and then come to you. Why have the fight, lose – and then have them resent you when you’re cleaning up their mess?” 

Part of the problem may stem from the department’s long-running school reforms.

Back in 2010, the DfE’s role was to make strategic plans but leave operational issues largely to the 150 local authorities and the school inspectors. Since then, 9,000 schools have become academies, meaning they won more autonomy and (initially, at least) got more cash. But this new legal status meant that they replaced local authority oversight with direct supervision by the DfE. 

The aim of this strategy was to remove the local authority “middle tier” of government from schools, so there would be one single school marketplace unconstrained by local school monopolies. But it had other effects. 

First, it created a culture whereby the department is often reflexively dismissive of local government. For example, the DfE, uniquely among major departments, declines to send staff to the relevant pan-London council meetings of specialist officials. 

While the city’s councils are in constant contact with health and other departments about city-wide planning, the DfE stays aloof. Gould says: “In the year I’ve been dealing with this, I’ve not experienced anything like that – dropping really important information without consulting anyone.” 

Second, this “academisation” process effectively turned the DfE itself into an enormous national local authority for the academies it supervises – worrying about new sports halls and faulty boilers for those thousands of schools. 

To manage this, the department organised its relationship with schools into “regional” offices. But, back in 2014, Gove feared that these new “Regional School Commissioners” might become a new “middle tier” to be captured by local political interests. To prevent that, he decided not to let the regions reflect the normal borders, as used by, for example, the school inspectorate. He devised new regions that did not correspond to existing structures. Williamson’s native Yorkshire has been carved up and parcelled off to three different regions.

London, too, was divided into three parts. The north-east of London is part of a region that runs up into Norfolk. The south of the city is run as part of the region also covering the Isle of Wight, while the west of the city is administered as part of the central midlands. The structure is intended to make it difficult for the institutions of London to influence the DfE by making three different offices responsible for the city. But, from the department’s side, it means no-one owns London issues.

Sir David Carter, who served until last year as National Schools Commissioner, the chief of the RSCs, says the pandemic meant that “there could well have been an argument for creating a temporary schools commissioner who took responsibility for what was happening in London schools”.

Taken altogether, it means the department has been led to a state where officials are nervous of raising problems with ministers, it has poor communication with local government in general and London in particular. At the same time, it has both been trying to implement the prime minister’s plans – and been sideswiped by pandemic announcements from the top. This creaky machine must now deal with a number of further pandemic problems. 

For example, at the moment, schools are not really “closed”. In addition to online classes, they are still taking in key workers’ children. There are accounts of individual schools being shockingly full. Some may be too full to be safe. Some have ended up turning away the children of pharmacists and nurses. Childcare settings are a worry, too. The qualifications system was a fiasco last year after the cancellation of exams. It could be again. 

Williamson’s new problem is that, even if alights on good answers to these problems, he will not get the benefit of the doubt from teachers, schools or local government. The school network wants to be led. But not this leader.

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