Covid-19: Online misinformation and unclear national guidance hampering schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Misinformation about Covid-19, often peddled on social media, is causing “confusion and parental anxiety” and hampering schools’ efforts to fully re-open this term.


It comes as more than a third of the schools visited by Ofsted during September reported an increase in the number of children being removed from the school and home-educated because of anxiety about Covid-19.

The issue is raised in Ofsted’s first Covid-19 briefing report of the autumn term, which is based on visits by inspectors to 121 schools – including 71 primary and 40 secondary (Ofsted, 2020).

Inspectors report a mixed approach to curriculum coverage, with some schools returning immediately to teaching all subjects and others preferring a gradual approach focused on foundation subjects and reading.

The report also raises concerns that remote education for pupils self-isolating was “in many cases” not fully aligned with the curriculum being taught in the classroom.

It comes as the latest Department for Education figures show that the number of schools “fully open” – meaning they can provide face-to-face teaching for all pupils – has fallen again (DfE, 2020).

On October 1, 92 per cent of state schools were “fully open”, down from 93 per cent on September 24. The fall is being driven at secondary level, where the proportion of secondary schools “fully open” has fallen from 84 to 82 per cent.

However, overall, 90 per cent of pupils were attending school on October 1, up from 88 per cent on September 24, suggesting that the groups of pupils being asked to self-isolate are becoming smaller.

Ofsted’s report highlights school leaders’ concerns about being able to keep their schools open as increasing numbers of staff members have to self-isolate to wait for Covid tests or test results.

It states: “Staff being absent from school is already proving to be a challenge. Many leaders saw the lack of availability of Covid-19 testing in their area as a real barrier to getting – or staying – properly up and running again.

“Leaders of some small schools described how quickly their school might have to close if staff could not get tested when they needed to, though this fear was shared by schools of all sizes.”

On curriculum coverage, the report highlights a mixed picture, but said that all primary schools were “concentrating hard” on reading and phonics. The report adds: “Many leaders explained that they wanted to make sure that if there have been any losses in learning, particularly in reading, these are quickly put right.”

Many secondary schools in the report have returned to a full curriculum, although some “suggested” that pupils may have to drop an option subject at GCSE if they are to cope with the workload.

The report adds: “The secondary schools had generally re-ordered their curriculums in order to prioritise key concepts and knowledge. Some leaders talked about focusing on what they thought were the most important building blocks for each subject. Others said they were prioritising what they thought could not be taught effectively through remote learning. A few had extended their teaching time to support year 11 pupils to catch up with their learning.”

Schools discussed the idea of a “recovery curriculum” but this meant different things, the report says, from prioritising core subject knowledge or skills to focusing on wellbeing and PSHE. The report adds: “Overall, the main focus in the schools visited was getting back to the normal curriculum as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

On remote education, the report finds that schools were “generally using online methods of delivery” including “recorded online lessons, individual study modules or often a combination of the two”. Only “occasionally” were schools using live online lessons.

However, the report warns that in some subjects, remote education was only aligned with schools’ pre-existing curriculum “to some extent”, whereas in others “it was not yet aligned”.

It adds: “Schools were using remote learning to reach those pupils who have to stay at home, but remote learning materials were in many cases not fully aligned with the regular curriculum.”

Elsewhere, school leaders reported problems with receiving conflicting advice from different agencies and unclear national guidance: “Leaders often commented on what they saw as a lack of clarity in the national and local guidance that they had to draw on. Many said that they received conflicting information from different agencies, or from different parts of the same agency. They said that this was very stressful for them and their leadership team.”

Online misinformation about how Covid-19 is transmitted and the various preventative measures – often spread via social media – is also causing anxiety and confusion among parents, the report finds, sometimes leading to them keeping children at home.

Ofsted states: “Misinformation and myths, often from social media, about the different approaches taken to prevent transmission of the virus are causing confusion and parental anxiety, despite school leaders’ efforts to meet government guidelines.”

The report adds: “Social media, particularly when this spreads misinformation about Covid-19, was a continuing challenge for leaders. Sometimes, they had to help parents to know what the real situation was.”

In her commentary accompanying the report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman also warned about the effect of “fake news” being shared on social media (Spielman, 2020).

She said: “Myths can grow and circulate among schools about what they ‘have’ to do, or not do: no singing; no swimming; all doors open, no matter the weather. Successfully rebutting these myths, which spread so easily, is hard. Like Japanese knotweed, myths have persistent roots – so a consolidation and simplification of government advice for schools would help bring clarity for teachers and parents alike as we head towards the winter.

“Perhaps worryingly, over a third of the schools we visited for this report had noted more parents opting to home-educate their children. Some parents will have made a positive choice, after enjoying their summer experience at home, but many leaders believed parents were concerned about the safety of their children. We will watch this trend as our visits continue over the autumn.”

Ms Spielman also urged schools to ensure that remote provision is closely aligned to classroom teaching: “If we expect many children to find themselves at home in term time once or even more often this year, for possibly a fortnight at a time, they must not lose the progression that a strong, well-sequenced curriculum brings. Without that structure, remote education becomes more about filling time than about effective learning.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the DfE’s latest attendance figures “reflect the extremely tough circumstances in which schools are operating due to the impact of Covid”.

He added: “(Ofsted’s report) says that many leaders saw the lack of availability of Covid testing in their area as a real barrier to getting – or staying – properly up and running again. It reports that leaders also often commented on the lack of clarity in the national and local guidance that they had to draw on. Many said that they received conflicting information from different agencies, or from different parts of the same agency.

“These concerns chime with the reports that ASCL receives from school leaders. The government must redouble its efforts to improve the Covid testing system, and ensure that schools are supported by clear and consistent guidance.”

  • DfE: Week 40: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, October 6, 2020: https://bit.ly/3nr6KXt
  • Ofsted: Research and analysis: Covid-19 series: Briefing on schools September 2020, October 2020: https://bit.ly/3lpvkWT
  • Spielman: HMCI commentary: findings from visits in September, Ofsted, October 2020: https://bit.ly/3nr6Jmn


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