Schools backed to refuse 'inoperable' mass testing plan

Most schools won't be able to roll out 'inoperable' testing plan and should not be forced to engage, say unions
18th December 2020, 2:09pm
Amy Gibbons


Schools backed to refuse 'inoperable' mass testing plan
Rapid Covid Test

Schools and colleges will be backed if they refuse to roll-out current "inoperable" mass testing plans, the UK's major education unions have said.

In a joint statement issued this afternoon, the unions say the government's plan for mass testing in its current form is "inoperable" for most schools and colleges to carry out "in a safe and effective manner", and they should not be forced to roll it out.

"The suggestion that schools can safely recruit, train and organise a team of suitable volunteers to staff and run testing stations on their premises by the start of the new term is simply not realistic," the unions' statement reads.

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It adds that the government guidance "makes it clear" that mass testing in schools and colleges from next month is an "optional offer".

Therefore, "if a school or college decides it is unable to set up such testing systems, based on the current plans, you will receive the full support of our respective organisations", the unions say. 

The statement adds: "Any of our members who come under unreasonable pressure are advised to contact us immediately."

The unions say they are "supportive of the concept of the use of lateral flow tests in schools".

"However, it is our view that due to the chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance, and an absence of appropriate support, the government's plan in its current form will be inoperable for most schools and colleges," the statement reads.

"Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner."

The statement is co-signed by the NAHT school leaders' union, Association of School and College Leaders, NEU teaching union, NASUWT teaching union, National Governance Association, Church of England Education Office, the Association of Colleges, and the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

Independent schools association the HMC (Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) is also advising its members that the current government plans are "not deliverable" and says it "stands with the other unions".

General secretary Dr Simon Hyde said: "Schools stand ready to play a part, but they need to be consulted and reassured that plans will work. For too many, there is a lack of confidence in a government department that has let schools down too frequently."

The news follows yesterday's announcement from the Department for Education that the Army is being drafted in to help secondary schools set up a major Covid testing regime in the new year.

The DfE also confirmed that secondary schools will be going back in a staggered start, with the majority of year groups learning online in the first week of term.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said this morning that "operational details", containing information on how schools are expected to deliver testing, won't be published until next week - during the Christmas holidays.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: "Whilst we support the concept of rapid testing in schools, the chaotic and rushed nature of the government's announcement, the lack of proper guidance, and an absence of appropriate support, means that most will not be in a position to carry this out in safe and effective manner.

"Given the lack of detailed guidance or a coherent plan, we do not believe schools or colleges will be able to begin working on this before the start of next term. We will fully support members who choose not to implement the plan if they consider it to be unworkable in their schools as the government guidance allows for this, if not the headline announcement."

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: "It is extremely regrettable that the government has given the public the impression that a mass Covid testing programme will begin in secondary schools and colleges from the start of the spring term.

"This is not the case. The plans that have been outlined by the government are not deliverable in that timescale and it is irresponsible of the government to have created the perception that this could be done with so little preparation, resources and notice. The government has put schools and colleges in an intolerable position, and misled parents and pupils.

"Schools and colleges very much want staff and students to be able to access rapid Covid testing as soon as possible, but the plan has to be feasible or otherwise it is meaningless."

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: "Schools and colleges have made herculean efforts to play their part in protecting and teaching young people throughout the last year. They should not feel rushed into a testing programme for which there has been insufficient time and opportunity to prepare."

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said yesterday: "This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.

"Building on the fantastic actions that schools and colleges have already taken to be as safe as possible, this additional testing will catch those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms to help schools and colleges stay in control of the virus throughout the spring term.

"The new programme of daily testing for close contacts of those with confirmed cases of the virus will also mean we can keep more pupils in school, the best place for their development and wellbeing. Over the rest of the academic year and in the run-up to exams, it will remain a national priority to keep education open for all, while keeping schools as safe as possible."

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