'Those boxes of lateral flow tests are staring at me'

The halting of daily tests for close contacts of coronavirus cases in schools seemed inevitable, writes Patrick Moriarty

Patrick Moriarty

Coronavirus and schools: The halting of daily lateral flow Covid tests for close contacts of coronavirus cases in schools seemed inevitable, writes headteacher Patrick Moriarty

Most school leaders, if we are honest, could furnish a room with monuments to our folly. In our hearts, if not physically in our buildings, are the relics of bold decisions, which, on reflection, weren’t such a good idea – grand schemes flawed by insufficient pre-launch contact with reality.

Pride of place for me goes to the introduction of “Ma’am” as the counterpart to “Sir” for students addressing their teachers. I knew it worked in other schools; it avoided the uncomfortable inequality embodied in “Miss”, and was less clunky than using whole names. 

It seemed a good solution – and the silence of colleagues when I announced it felt like consent – but I still remember the look in the eyes of the first student I pulled up for not using it. 

“You don’t really know what you’re doing. You didn’t consult widely enough to get buy-in. You don’t believe in this yourself.” She was right on all three counts…and quietly I resolved to consign the idea to the shelf labelled "Rookie Errors of a Fledgling Headteacher". The memory still haunts me, but at least we didn’t get a load of cards and posters printed.

A few such monuments to folly are to be expected, even welcomed: those who make no mistakes, after all, rarely make anything at all, and failure (as we tell our students) is often the best teacher. Often foolish ideas can die quietly, or be swiftly superseded under the guise of a tweak or a review. 

But sometimes there are hard physical legacies that stare you in the face, and the bigger the price tag, the harder the stare. The boxes and boxes of lateral flow tests, test tubes, barcodes and latex gloves are staring with particular intensity in secondary schools up and down the country.

Coronavirus: Lateral flow test guinea pigs

It’s unfair to call it a folly, because this was an idea that everyone supported. The teaching profession called for regular testing as the price of keeping schools open, and the government (albeit later than we hoped) delivered. 

It literally delivered: those boxes arrived in every secondary school on the first day of term, and headteacher social-media groups pinged with negative results as senior staff selflessly offered themselves as lateral flow test guinea pigs.

There was even, as the rhetoric evolved that day, an acceptance that schools would need time to get their testing ducks in a row. By the evening, the return of secondary students had been delayed long enough to allow the gradual start that gave the system the best chance of success. It was almost enough to soothe the troubled memories of spending the Christmas holiday designing that system, in between doing the last few dozen isolations.

As colleagues and students returned to school in greatly reduced numbers, we could survey the scene with some satisfaction: despite our worst fears, we had identified and trained the staff, written the risk assessments, set up the rooms, got over the fact that the training materials envisaged items of equipment that weren’t supplied, and – grudgingly, perhaps – we saw that we could do it. Parents and alumni had volunteered in droves, and it was shaping up to be a unifying community effort.

The sheer weight of numbers

At the same time, however, snags began to creep in. In my school, we became suspicious at the lack of “void” results: we’re good…but could everyone really be getting the whole routine right first time?

When even a clean exam desk tested negative, despite a complete lack of organic material on the swab, it rather undermined faith in our own results. Was this going to build anyone’s confidence in returning to school safely?

Meanwhile, the realisation was dawning that our systems were not scalable. Even if we speeded up the registration process, and had students waiting for their results back in their bubbles, space was going to be a constraint. What worked for 100 people a day wouldn’t be three times as hard for 300 – it would just be impossible alongside anything like a normal school day in anything like a normal school building.

As medical experts confirmed our doubts about the reliability of tests, local authorities began to concur: several ordered schools not to use lateral flow testing as a replacement for isolating contacts of positive cases.

The Department for Education’s belated acceptance of the same position yesterday had a feel of weary inevitability to it but (channelling resilient optimism as best we can) was a cause for sadness rather than fury. 

At least daily serial testing was pushed before it fell. The sheer weight of numbers would have made that fall pretty rapid given just a few positive cases, each with their typical 40 to 50 close contacts. Perhaps it was never going to work, and a bit more timely realism and consultation could have saved us grief. Yes, we can point to a history of this over the pandemic, but in this case I, for one, feel implicated in the overconfidence.

This idea, on which schools and government had pinned their hopes of a safe and confident return, dwindles to little more than a “nice to have”. Half of the point of it – avoiding the isolation of students and colleagues – has now gone, leaving us with just those boxes and their accusing stare. Even their brand name “Innova” reads as a taunt, cut off before it could succeed as the next new thing.

If mass daily testing has failed, where does that leave us? Probably back where we were last term, tracking, tracing, testing and isolating alongside the teaching. Perhaps the fight has gone out of me, but that prospect fills me with grief rather than anger – grief for our students, grief for our colleagues who have to grind on with it all, grief for our community and our nation.

Failure is indeed an excellent teacher for those willing to learn. Vaccination is going well, and we have been promised a good lead time for the return to face-to-face school. Let us hope – Ma’am, Sir – for sustained good decision-making as we face the tests to come.

Patrick Moriarty is headteacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), in the London Borough of Barnet

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