How Covid-19 disrupted England’s school system

24th May 2021

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson visiting a London academy school in April 2021.

Photo Credit: Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street

By Andrew Hillman

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Conservative supporters have stood firm in their support for the party’s cabinet members with just one exception: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. In March, Williamson’s net satisfaction rating among Conservative party members was -27, according to a survey by ConservativeHome.

Support for Williamson among the teaching profession is even weaker. An ITV survey conducted by polling platform Teacher Tapp in January found that 92% of teachers believed Williamson should resign. In the same week, the Yorkshire Post described Williamson as “the most incompetent, ineffectual and inept Education Secretary in living memory.”

Education ministers have become accustomed to defending themselves against criticism in the past decade – Michael Gove received motions of no confidence from four different teachers’ unions following his changes to the exam system and national curriculum; his successor Nicky Morgan was excoriated for her commitment to complete academisation of the state school system.

But Williamson’s tenure began differently to his predecessors, with the opportunity to establish goodwill and trust from the teaching profession with a plan to significantly boost school spending, reversing ten years of cuts to education spending in real terms. In 2019, shortly after Johnson became prime minister and appointed Williamson as education secretary, the government pledged to increase school funding starting in 2020/21, with an inflation-adjusted £4.3 billion additional annual spending by 2022/23.

However, before schools would begin receiving additional income, the education system was plunged into its most disruptive period in recent history, when the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools and cancelled exams. In the following 15 months, Williamson has been forced into two U-turns on access to free school meals for disadvantaged pupils during lockdown, presided over the A-Level results debacle and even used legal action against a London council to prevent school closures amid rising infection rates.

Meanwhile, the government’s plans to mitigate lost learning and a widening attainment gap during the pandemic, particularly through the creation of the National Tutoring Programme, are set to have a lasting impact on the UK’s education system.

Here is what you should know about how England’s school system has changed during the pandemic.

Closures have posed dilemmas for SEND schools

As cases of Covid-19, soared the government speedily drafted the Coronavirus Act 2020 – legislation giving the education secretary emergency powers to issue “educational closure directions” requiring English state schools to move teaching online.

There were specific exceptions: children of key workers and vulnerable children – which includes some pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) – were permitted to continue attending schools. This created a catch-22 situation for many SEND schools: decide that some vulnerable pupils, many of whom required specialist support, would have to study from home, or allow a high percentage of pupils to attend, making social distancing impossible.

The coronavirus act also allowed Williamson to issue “temporary continuity directions”, a power he controversially utilised to prevent Greenwich council closing schools early before Christmas as cases of Covid-19 within the borough rose rapidly.

Ofqual’s algorithm chaos

Shortly after closing schools in March 2020, Williamson announced that the summer’s GCSE and A-Level exams would be cancelled and wrote to Ofqual asking the exam regulator to devise an alternative method for awarding grades. Ofqual’s solution involved a combination of teacher assessed grades, used for small cohorts of students, and an algorithm based on teachers’ rankings of students by ability and the school’s historical performance, which was used for larger cohorts.

The exact details of Ofqual’s method were shrouded in secrecy since the regulator chose not to publish the methodology report until results day, a decision that was criticised by both the Royal Statistical Society and the Education Select Committee. When the methodology report was finally released, it became clear that many students were being unreasonably penalised for high variation in their school’s previous results. The report also revealed that Ofqual’s solution was most generous to students in small cohorts, which disproportionally included private school students.

Reaction from students and teachers to this algorithm-delivered injustice was fierce and Ofqual swiftly abandoned their approach, reverting to awarding all students their teacher assessed grades.

Double U-turn on free school meal vouchers

In England’s state schools, children in their first three years of schooling and those whose parents or guardians claim income support are entitled to free school meals. Last spring, the Department for Education (DfE) began providing food vouchers to children in lieu of the lunches they were unable to receive with schools closed.

With food bank use rising during the pandemic, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford campaigned for vouchers to continue over the summer holiday. The government was initially reluctant but reversed its position after Rashford received widespread public support, and following a threat of legal action from the Good Law Project.

The situation repeated itself in the autumn, when the DfE said free school meals would not be provided during the November half-term, before U-turning after Conservative-controlled councils in London and Birmingham said they would cover the cost of the vouchers during the holiday if the government would not.

Free school meal eligibility has been a hot button issue within the teaching community for another reason. Since 2010, the DfE has used free school meal eligibility to distribute the “pupil premium”, a grant designed to ensure that schools with the most disadvantaged students receive the most funding. Previous pupil premium allocations have been based on the January school census but this year the government changed that policy, instead electing to measure free school meal eligibility from the October census. Since 300,000 additional pupils became eligible for free school meals between October and January, worth an estimated £250 million in funding, the move has been widely criticised as a cost-cutting exercise that negates other spending pledges.

Home learning and digital divide leads to widening attainment gap

With lessons moving online, children’s access to digital devices became a crucial issue. By January, the DfE had provided 800,000 laptops and tablets to schools in England, and yet a Teacher Tapp survey commissioned by the Sutton Trust found that in schools in the most deprived areas one in every two classes had more than 10% of pupils without adequate access to a device.

Research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) showed that the attainment gap between the most and least affluent pupils widened in the year prior to the pandemic – the first increase in over a decade. With schools closed, unequal access to digital devices and study space prompted fears that the attainment gap would widen further. In May, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published analysis indicating that by last autumn, the attainment gap had increased by the equivalent of one month’s learning in maths but remained constant in reading compared to 12 months previously.

Overall, the EPI estimates that by midway through the autumn term, an average pupil had lost two to three months of learning, worth between £8,000 and £50,000 in lifetime lost earnings.

What is the future of the education sector?

To counteract lost learning, Boris Johnson handed £650 million in “catch-up funding” to schools and appointed Sir Kevan Collins, former head of the EEF, to a newly-created position at the DfE – education recovery commissioner.

However, the EPI suggests that more will be required to ensure pupils are not left behind. The institute estimates that £13.5 billion of funding will be needed – equivalent to roughly 17% of spending on schools in a typical year – and recommends extended school hours, summer wellbeing programmes and an increase in the pupil premium. In May, TES reported that the DfE was considering two options for longer school days: a mandatory 30-minute extension or additional voluntary lessons between 8am and 6pm.

One new component of the schools system which looks set to stay is the National Tutoring Programme (NTP). The programme, which launched last summer, provides heavily subsidised private tuition to schools to assist with catch-up learning. The NTP has faced criticism for inflating tuition fees charged by private providers, failing to reach the most disadvantaged pupils and low overall take-up, particularly in the north of England. However, tender documents seen by Schools Week in February confirmed that the scheme would continue until at least 2022, with Dutch consulting firm Randstad pegged to replace the EEF in running the programme.

Another facet of the education system which is likely to continue following the pandemic is academisation. The process whereby local authority-maintained schools move under the control of academy trusts has slowed slightly during the pandemic, but at the Confederation of Schools Trust conference Williamson expressed his desire to see a fully academised school system, saying: “I want to see us break away from our current ‘pick and mix’ structure…and move towards a single model, one that is built on a foundation of strong multi-academy trusts.

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