Welcome to Hokey-Cokey education policy

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As government promises news on schools reopening and summer exams, expect the opposite of what’s announced. Welcome to Hokey-Cokey education policy.

As government promises news on schools reopening and summer exams, retired headteacher Bernard Trafford reckons it’s safest to assume that what will actually happen is the opposite of what’s announced. If Gavin Williamson puts his right hand in, you can be sure that he’ll rapidly pull it out again: welcome to Hokey-Cokey education policy.

To describe the Secretary of State for Education as hapless would be an understatement: but he hasn’t been helped by his senior colleagues. Apparently, poor old Gavin wasn’t even in the room when, at the start of January, Boris Johnson and his inner circle decided to close schools – on the very day when they had just reopened after Christmas. He was similarly undermined, having maintained for months that the summer exams would proceed as normal, when the PM abruptly cancelled them.

Williamson, like the entire government, is in a difficult position. The Covid-driven sands shift constantly beneath them, and every decision they’re required to make is a choice between two options, contradictory but all too often equally valid. Closing schools (except for the vulnerable and for children of key workers) may achieve the laudable goal of reducing infection/spread: but it’ll do incalculable harm to children’s education.

I learned a measure of sympathy for policymakers when I was interrogated recently on LBC by Nick Ferrari (the legendary old mucker of Voice of the North’s father-figure, David Banks). My interview about the summer’s forthcoming exams was preceded by quotes from eminent figures in education. One insisted that exams must be cancelled: another that, to be fair to candidates, they must continue. “Who’s right?” Ferrari demanded of me.

Readers of Voice of the North will recall that, back in September, I predicted that cancellation, even while ministers continued for another four months to insist that they would happen. I guess Nick expected me to demand cancellation. I didn’t. The trouble, I confessed, was that both points of view were valid, at which point I was accused of being “diplomatic”, which never makes for good radio.

I was being neither polite nor careful: just honest. The position is impossible, with no satisfactory solution.

I still maintain that government should have acted, in September or earlier, to plan use of the autumn term – when most children were in school for most of the time – for teachers to accumulate useful and reliable data on which to base the grades that they will inevitably be required to award to their exam pupils. Instead, ministers buried their heads in the sand.

Since Boris’s announcement on 4th January, the exams watchdog Ofqual has been consulting schools on how to produce some kind of testing programme that teachers might use for evidence over the next few months. The consultation closed last Friday: Ofqual’s response is expected on 22nd February. Far too late, once again.

A leading voice of reason on education throughout this pandemic has been Geoff Barton, general secretary of the school leaders’ union, ASCL. Last week he reminded his members that there will be no solution that’s fair to all candidates: it’s simply not possible. Ministerial dithering has squandered any opportunity to create any framework that might have replaced, complemented or compensated for cancelled summer exams.

Meanwhile, schools have no idea what will happen about exams. An experienced and normally confident English teacher I spoke to this week said simply, “I have no idea what I should be teaching my students now.” Perhaps that pedagogue will be a little the wiser on 22nd February – the day on which most English schools return to virtual teaching after their half-term break.

My September bet that exams would be cancelled was correct. Now I’ll try another, equally joyless prediction.

Boris has suggested (not promised) that schools might start reopening on 8th March. In contrast to what appears a hugely successful beginning to the vaccination programme (maybe because it’s been planned and implemented by experts, not politicos), I predict we’ll see another confusion of slow re-openings and swift subsequent closures.

You don’t have to believe me, and I wish I were more optimistic. But I fear that Hokey-Cokey education policy will be with us for a long time yet.

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