Private schools ‘bewildered’ by Covid test costs U-turn

Independent schools say the amount of government funding they will get for Covid testing ‘seems to discriminate’ against their teachers and students
4th January 2021, 7:19pm
Catherine Lough

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Private schools ‘bewildered’ by Covid test costs U-turn

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/private-schools-bewildered-covid-test-costs-u-turn
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Private schools have said they feel "let down" by a government decision not to cover costs associated with the Covid-19 lateral flow tests that are being reimbursed for state schools.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, Simon Hyde, general secretary of private school body the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), has expressed "disappointment" and "bewilderment" over the move.


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The letter, sent on 30 December, says Mr Williamson had previously made clear "that the government would be offering to support all secondary schools to carry out asymptomatic tests" using lateral flow devices.

"I am grateful that the government has since confirmed that tests and PPE (personal protective equipment) would be provided to schools free of charge and that this provision would apply to both state and independent schools," Dr Hyde said.

But he added: "I must, however, note the disappointment and even bewilderment of many of my members that the government has not agreed to contribute to the reasonable costs of independent schools for the implementation of the national programme," he added.

"We are confused by the inconsistency of funding the programme for all schools as far as tests and PPE are concerned, but only state schools regarding the costs of administration and implementation.  

"Given the national priority you identified and the status of the programme as a public health measure, we would like to understand the government's grounds for seeming to discriminate against the significant numbers of children, staff and parents in the independent sector."

Dr Hyde added that he felt private school pupils were being "excluded" from part of a national programme.

"If schools are now prevented from feeling able to implement the testing programme due to the costs involved, then the clinically extremely vulnerable family members of pupils in independent schools will be placed at greater risk; surely this cannot be the government's position?" he asked.

Speaking to Tes, Dr Hyde said: "I think there is a strong feeling among members in HMC schools that this is not fair and this is not right, and to some extent it's a betrayal of the national health system that we have operating in the country.

"It comes down to what is appropriate and fair in the funding of a public health measure…I cannot understand, for the life of me, why 615,000 children in the independent sector do not qualify in the way that all children should qualify."

Dr Hyde said additional costs could leave schools unable to meet testing demands, putting pupils, staff and the public at risk.

"I'm hopeful that a school won't be in the position where it can't afford to do what the government wants it to do because that would leave people unprotected and that is simply wrong," he said.

"Schools are operating on very tight budgets. If there isn't the money to do something, you can't do it unless you stop doing something else you should be doing, so for some schools this is a really difficult situation in which they have been put.

"This is a matter of principle - I think we feel let down."

Independent Schools Council chief executive Julie Robinson said: "Throughout this public health crisis, independent schools have been doing what they can - according to their individual capacity and resources - to support the fightback against coronavirus, including producing and donating PPE, offering boarding school accommodation to NHS workers and sharing online learning resources.

"Every school is grappling with the ongoing impact of the pandemic and now the government's expectation for all schools to roll out mass testing.

"Independent schools are, of course, keen to help keep communities safe through this new programme of widespread testing but this is a health matter, not an educational one, and independent schools are understandably frustrated that the government is not offering them the financial assistance it is providing other schools to administer the tests.

"We have made ministers aware of this concern and urged them to make this a matter of state aid so that the same support is provided to all schools and children at this desperately challenging time."

The Department for Education was contacted for comment.

The letter in full:

Dear secretary of state,

I wrote to you on 18 December following your letter to MPs the previous day on mass testing in schools. In your letter, you confirmed that the government would be offering to support all secondary schools to carry out asymptomatic tests using LFDs [lateral flow devices] to ensure that schools could reopen in January.

Your letter was clear that keeping children in education was a national priority and that you appreciated the efforts of schools, teachers and support staff in this regard.

I am grateful that the government has since confirmed that tests and PPE would be provided to schools free of charge, and that this provision would apply to both state and independent schools (which educate over 615,000 pupils.)  

I must, however, note the disappointment and even bewilderment of many of my members that the government has not agreed to contribute to the reasonable costs of independent schools for the implementation of the national programme. We are confused by the inconsistency of funding the programme for all schools as far as tests and PPE are concerned, but only state schools regarding the costs of administration and implementation.  

Given the national priority you identified and the status of the programme as a public health measure, we would like to understand the government's grounds for seeming to discriminate against the significant numbers of children, staff and parents in the independent sector.  

The costs of ensuring our schools are Covid safe have been considerable and the DfE has not made any additional financial support for this available to independent schools. This has been a challenge, but we have made the necessary adjustments and borne the financial burden in the best interests of our pupils, staff and wider community.  

It seems perfectly clear to us that - in the case of rolling our lateral flow testing - schools are being asked to perform a public health function which will save lives, minimise the further spread of covid-19 and support children's education. 

In these circumstances, the government's decision not to make any contribution towards the costs cannot be viewed as equitable given that maintained sector schools are receiving funding to support them carrying out this public health function.  
 
We are yet to understand the longer-term economic and financial impact of the pandemic on our schools. Certainly, many families are having to cope with significant financial pressures and many of our schools are doing what they can to assist. Schools have remained open to the children of key workers, excellent remote learning provision has been pioneered and often shared with partner schools and others. Crucially, independent schools have continued to function as part of the national economy as a source of employment and not inconsiderable tax revenue.  

If schools are now prevented from feeling able to implement the testing programme due to the costs involved, then the clinically extremely vulnerable family members of pupils in independent schools will be placed at greater risk; surely this cannot be the government's position?  

The pandemic has provided many examples of excellent partnership work between the independent and state sector. We have always celebrated the fact that partnership is two-way and there is no question that the ability of independent schools to access the furlough scheme alongside other SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] was warmly appreciated by my members at what was an extremely difficult time. Similarly, the provision of tests and PPE to our schools is most welcome. The majority simply would not have been able to afford this additional burden at this time when they are already being asked to do so much.  

Ultimately, however, we are concerned by a matter of principle: that children and staff in independent schools are being excluded from part of a national programme. We have a national health service; we are dealing with a national emergency, and it is only right that the government's response is national in its reach.  

I look forward to hearing from you. 
 
Yours sincerely 
 
 Dr Simon Hyde

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