The back-to-school debacle: a week of blundering U-turns


In a dramatic speech broadcast live on TV this evening, prime minister Boris Johnson announced schools in England will now be closed to most children until at least mid February, with this summer’s exams also cancelled.

This was from a man who had just a day earlier professed he had “no doubt” that schools were safe – urging millions of parents to send their children back into primary school today.

The reversal marked the contemptible climax of a truly woeful week which saw five U-turns on back-to-school plans, usually moderate unions launch legal action against ministers and ensured any lingering goodwill and trust between the profession and education secretary Gavin Williamson was well and truly blown to smithereens.

Here’s how it all unfolded …


Weds, Dec 30: Government rewrites its school reopening plans that had been announced on the penultimate day of the Christmas term. The new plan (U-turn number 1) was that a staggered start for secondary schools was to be pushed back, and primaries in Covid “hotspot” areas were to stay shut for two weeks.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson insisted exams would go ahead as planned.


Weds, Dec 30: The list of Covid hotspot areas was published later that evening, however it had to be amended not long after publication because the London borough of Redbridge had been mistakenly missed off.


Thurs, Dec 31: It emerged today Williamson had actually made it mandatory for mass testing to be rolled out in secondary schools. Leaders had been assured just two weeks earlier the roll-out of testing – which they had spent their Christmas holidays setting up – was “optional”.

But, speaking on Radio 4, Williamson announced that the government was “moving from an offer of this to something that we expect and require all schools to deliver”. This detail wasn’t included in the government’s original release explaining the changes, nor in Williamson’s main speech to Parliament. U-turn number 2.

Williamson claimed he was “absolutely confident” of no further school reopening delays…


Fri, Jan 1: The Department for Education started off the new year just as it had ended the last one: another U-turn. The government said it would now roll out its contingency controls (closing primaries) in all London boroughs after a review.

The government had faced legal challenges from the London boroughs excluded from the Covid hotspot list – who pointed out they had higher infection rates than other regions told to close their schools.

However, the DfE said this wasn’t due to “safety concerns in education”, but it was to “protect public health and save lives”. All clear on that? Yeah, us neither.

Fun fact: One of the London boroughs now told to close its schools was Greenwich, which had suggested closing its schools earlier in December to stem rising infection rates. However, it was forced to drop the plans after legal action by Williamson.


Fri, Jan 1: It also emerged today that government scientists advised ministers on December 22 that it was “highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November [with schools open] would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant”.


Sun, Jan 3: Pressure began to ramp up against the back-to-school plans. The usually non-confrontational headteacher unions were taking legal action, teacher unions were urging staff they don’t have to go into school if it’s unsafe and tier 4 areas were demanding clarity on why they’d been told to stay open.

But prime minister Boris Johnson appeared on the Marr Show that morning to say he had “no doubt” schools were safe and urged parents to “absolutely” send their children in.

Fun fact: Johnson appeared on the show after Sir Mark Walport, the government’s former chief scientific officer, who said the new Covid variant was transmitting “more readily” in young people – warning it would be “very difficult” to keep under control without potentially closing schools.


Mon, Jan 4: In a dramatic 8pm live broadcast to the nation, Johnson announces that from tomorrow – schools will be closed until mid-February at the earliest (U-turn number 4) and that, because of this, exams for this summer appear to be cancelled too (U-turn number 5).

As I type, we still don’t know some quite important details: like whether all exams will be cancelled, or whether special and alternative provision schools will remain open. The government is also insisting that vocational exams this month will still go ahead.

The announcement came on the day that millions of children will have gone back into primary school (on the insistence of ministers, and despite several councils voicing their concerns) and left schools with zero time to implement any plans for remote learning. Some had also just set up their nice, gleaming mass testing stations (which will now sit mostly unused for months).

A woeful week that has created more questions than it has answered and seems to have left the government’s standing with the profession at an new low.


John Dickens is editor of Schools Week

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One comment

  1. David Davids

    Missed one! The Dfe email (which came out at 11 p.m.) states:
    “We understand that schools and colleges may wish to open tomorrow (Tuesday 5 January) to allow for the distribution of remote education resources, and that is permitted within these rules, though not required.”
    So, the urgent lockdown starts today… or Wednesday if it’s more convenient.
    Obviously, this came out after everyone had scrambled their communication channels letting parents know schools were closed from today.