Coronavirus confusion: Pupils panic and teachers none the wiser after muddled message

Following the lead of Wales and Scotland, the Government finally issued the directive we all knew was coming, ordering schools to close from tomorrow (20 March). But that wasn't all.

How will students receive their exam results this year? (©GettyImages)
How will students receive their exam results this year? (©GettyImages)

Accompanying Boris Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson's announcements was news that, to paraphrase, "exams will be cancelled, but we'll ensure children get the qualifications they need".

I'm sorry, what? A relatively throwaway side note, effectively saying that everything GCSE and A-level students have worked for over the past couple of years will be subject to an as-yet-unknown calculation that will have a huge bearing on their future.

Serious times demand governments with a serious tone: can the PM rise to this challenge?

My wife is a state secondary school teacher and, with no exaggeration, this has caused complete confusion and uncertainty in the education sector. 

Messages immediately started flooding in to her from students, panicking about what's going to happen. Teachers are none the wiser, so their only legitimate response is "wait and see, everything will be fine".

I have sympathy for the Government. Against this unprecented backdrop, they're having to make multiple announcements every single day on snap policies that in any 'normal' world would take months to be thought through, communicated & rolled out.

But knee-jerk messaging like this helps no-one. If there is no detail on the policy, what's required is a calm, reassuring holding statement, not a back-of-a-fag-packet fudge that looks like it's been prepared minutes before facing the media.

Ideally, give a heads up to schools and teachers before the general public, so they can prepare their own comms response to their own audience.

This morning, Williamson had a chance to clarify and reassure, but yet again delivered opaque updates in an unconvincing manner:

He told the BBC grades would be issued in August under a "different process and a different system". Does this reassure parents and pupils? I'm not sure.

The wider point here is that the public understand the pressure that government is under, so plenty of slack will be given, but rushed, panicked messaging does no-one any good.

Keep calm and carry on, but with the emphasis on keeping calm.

Rob McKinlay is head of audience engagement, PRWeek

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