Covid-19 Curriculum Watch: Education Policy in the first 3 months of the pandemic

An infographic timetabling policy developments across the UK since March 2020

02 July 2020

It could be argued that in no other time in UK history, has education faced so many changes, challenges and uncertainties in such a short period of time. The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on educational provision across all four nations. On a daily basis, those with an interest in UK education are inundated with new policy announcements, press releases, interviews, news stories and prominent tweets relating to education. 

The Education and Curriculum team in Cambridge Assessment’s Research Division have been closely monitoring these updates and developments as part of a project, which we have called Curriculum Watch, to understand how the educational responses across the home nations compare. 

We want to share our work, and have decided to launch this Covid-19 Curriculum Watch blog series. Through this series, we’ll sift through the policy updates, guidance documents and news articles, to present a clear and concise overview of what’s happening in UK education. 

Topic 1: Closing school doors and opening (virtual) classrooms

In this first blog we explore how the four home nations have dealt with the large-scale closure of parts of their education system, and then how they have moved towards opening educational facilities up to learners again. Whilst we recognise that the events we report on are still unfolding, there are a few observations that can already be drawn from the descriptions of the four nations’ educational responses to the pandemic.


As a common response, all four nations set out measures for maintaining access to schools for children of key workers and for vulnerable children. It was interesting to see that all jurisdictions expressed concerns about All four jurisdictions have chosen to alter the course of their proposed education provision in response to the changing conditions of the pandemic, yet, the particularities of these shifts have differed between the nations the relatively low number of these children who were accessing the education provided. 

We also note that all of the four jurisdictions have chosen to alter the course of their proposed education provision in response to the changing conditions of the pandemic, such as around the proposed dates for re-opening schools, yet, the particularities of these shifts have differed between the nations. 

In England and Wales there were ambitions to re-open schools before the summer break, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland focused on reopening at the end of summer. The nations have also differed in their inclusion of stakeholders in the decision-making process, with Scotland and Northern Ireland favouring the most inclusive approaches.  

There are also some hints of a move towards the increasing role of local authorities in the school opening arrangements in Scotland and Wales compared with England. Northern Ireland has a particularly interesting set of dynamics around its policy formation as it shares a land border with a nation outside of the UK. There are indications here that policy making in the Northern Ireland Executive is influenced by policies emerging from Westminster as well as from Dublin.  


Schools in the state sector across the UK formally closed around the 20th of March, except for children deemed vulnerable by educational providers or local authorities, and children of critical workers. 

Northern Ireland appeared to act comparatively early on school closure. There the first phase of Covid-19 related school closures began on March 9th when schools providing education exclusively for special educational needs pupils closed their doors. 

Further pressure on the Northern Ireland Executive to close schools came on March 12th, when the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, announced that all schools, universities and childcare facilities in the Republic would be closing at 6pm. The next closures in Northern Ireland occurred on March 17th with all university campuses closing and lectures shifting to distance learning. On 20th March, in line with many other areas of the UK, schools, statutory nurseries and Further Education colleges in Northern Ireland officially closed.

The different nations also needed to consider how to deal with education providers in the private sector. While in England the closure order applied similarly to private childcare providers, the government amended its guidance on 11 May to allow paid childcare (nannies and childminders) to resume, subject to meeting certain public health principles. The rationale underpinning this change in guidance was to enable the return to work of parents unable to work from home. 

In Scotland, closure was extended on the 25th March to other educational providers, including private early years settings, out of school activity providers, and registered childminders. In contrast, Wales could not mandate independent educational providers to close, but encouraged them to do so.

Ongoing provision

As a common response, all four nations set out measures for maintaining access to schools for children of key workers and for vulnerable children. In England and Northern Ireland this provision was school based, whilst Scotland and Wales established a number of ‘hubs’. In Scotland the hubs were centralised facilities that were designed to stay open over the summer break and could be booked online. In Wales, learners could attend their home school or elsewhere, depending on local circumstances. 

Regardless of which model was adopted, there were commonly expressed concerns across all the nations about the relatively low attendance levels at these facilities. In Scotland, some councils decided to close their hubs, opening schools up to small numbers of children to encourage vulnerable learners back into education. Similarly, as a response to the spare capacity in the provision in Northern Ireland, the list of key workers was amended on June 4th to allow additional families to send their children to school or childcare. 

This has since been widened further with all parents being able to access childcare (but not schooling) from 29th June if their regular childcare facility is open.  

Plans for re-opening

In England and Wales there was a big push to get schools opened up before the summer break. At the same time, these plans have been prone to alteration. 

In England, the phased return of children to school started with the re-opening of primary schools on 1st June for learners in the early years, Reception, and Years 1 and 6. Guidance for primary schools was updated on 15th June to enable schools with additional capacity to welcome children back from other year groups, up to a maximum class size of 15. Schools continue to see a low level of return to school in general, with only one in four of those eligible to return actually returning to the classroom. 

The phased re-opening of secondary schools began on 15th June, with schools welcoming up to 25% of students at a time for Years 10 and 12. The guidance for secondary schools introduced staggered school start and end times, to minimise use of public transport at specific times; additionally, schools were advised to avoid split-day rotas within the same day. 

This advice differed from that given to primary schools that were told to avoid rotas altogether, as rotas do not provide enough consistency of education and care for younger children. While initial plans foresaw the return of all primary school children in England for one month before summer, the government backtracked on this plan amid criticism from headteachers and teaching unions that the plan was unworkable. 

Schools continue to see a low level of return to school in general, with estimates that only one in four of those eligible to return actually returning to the classroom. Nonetheless, the full re-opening of schools in England is planned for September.  

In Wales, the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, originally anticipated that schools would be shut through the summer term. However, she soon turned her mind to plans for re-opening schools.  On 28th April she shared five guiding principles for determining how and when schools would re-open, and on 15th May she published the decision framework for phased re-opening of schools and childcare. This led to several announcements on dates for school opening. 

There was an original intention for all schools to open on 1st June, but this was not achieved. Subsequent to this, the Minister declared that all pupils should have the opportunity to return to school starting from 29th June, with term being extended by a week. Plans for school return included smaller class sizes, a third of learners in school at any one time, and each learner attending school three or more times before the summer holidays. On 18th June, this commitment was toned down, with the government confirming that Local Authorities could determine term dates and how schools would re-open, leading to potential inconsistency across the nation. 

In Scotland and Northern Ireland there has been less of a push to get schools fully opened before the summer break. At the start of June, the Scottish government announced its preparations for reopening general education. From the 1st June, teachers were expected to return to their schools, regardless of whether students were in attendance, to allow them to prepare for a ‘universal’ opening of schools to most learners on 11th August (around two weeks earlier than the standard start date for the Autumn term in Scotland).

At the end of June, John Swinney (Deputy First Minister, and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills) announced that it was the Government’s intention for all students to return to school full time in August, with early learning and childcare providers being open for all over the summer period. This statement was considered by some to be a ‘U-turn’ on prior proposals that had anticipated a 50% blend of home and school learning. 

In Northern Ireland, the Executive confirmed that schools will reopen on 24 August 2020, which would mark the beginning of the new school term for Primary 7, Year 12 and Year 14 pupils, and for vulnerable children across all groups. All other pupils will return at normal start dates in September (which vary depending on school). On 19th June, the Department of Education published the official re-opening guidance. In addition, the Executive published the current scientific advice that has informed the development of the guidance. 

Stakeholder involvement

Across the nations there have been variations in the extent of overt stakeholder involvement in the reopening process. In Scotland and Northern Ireland there were clear indications that a variety of professional groups were involved in the education decision-making process. For example, at the start of June the Scottish government announced its preparations for reopening general education and convened an Education Recovery Group that involved representatives from Local Authorities, teachers' organisations, and trade unions. 

Similarly, on 19th June, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland published its official re-opening guidance that was co-designed by the Department of Education, school leaders and key partners and supported through consultation with Managing Authorities, trades unions and sectoral support bodies.

In contrast, stakeholders in Wales have expressed concerns since March that their views have not been considered by the Government. Unions’ concerns have centred on issues around the safety of staff and learners and worries that their advice on school opening have not been listened to. This was reinforced by the way that Unions were not included in the decision about whether schools would re-open on 1st June. 

In England, Union leaders met with government scientific advisers in mid-May for talks on the government’s plans to push for a phased re-opening of schools from 1st June. Teaching unions have been vocal in raising their concerns around re-opening and whether key safety principles that would allow re-opening have been met. Some local authorities have also diverged from DfE guidelines with many councils advising schools to delay re-opening into late June.

Our next Curriculum Watch blog will address approaches to assessment in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stay tuned. 

If you are interested in contacting our team around any of the issues discussed in this blog, or if you want to suggest topics for our future blogs, please get in touch with us at

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