'Why mass Covid testing would make education fairer'

It is increasingly difficult to envisage fair exams in Scotland in 2021, says Barry Black

Barry Black

'Why mass Covid testing would make education fairer'

There seems to me to be two simultaneous truths regarding the impact that Covid-19 is having upon Scottish schools.

The first is that teachers and other school staff rightly feel at risk and let down by a lack of support and clarity over their working conditions in classrooms. The second is that the vast numbers of pupils self-isolating will almost undoubtedly be impacting upon attainment generally, and the poverty-related attainment gap.

A large part of both of these issues is a lack of data, awareness and understanding of the prevalence of the disease in Scottish schools.


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Background: Sturgeon under renewed pressure to cancel exams


Last month, I published research showing that recent attendance rates in schools have reduced compared with previous years as a result of the pandemic, with the most deprived areas of Scotland experiencing a much bigger impact.

Scottish government data shows that older and more deprived pupils are the most likely to be missing school – meaning a likely impact on exam attainment this year. Of the attendance figures published on 24 November, there was a chasm in attendance between the most and least deprived pupils.

The impact of Covid on education has not been equitable. As always, the most deprived pupils are the most disadvantaged. With courses beginning much later than normal and the large variation in attendance rates, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how an equitable exam diet is possible next year.

I believe it is time for the Scottish government to use its testing capacity to mass test one entire primary and secondary school in each local authority. Voluntary mass testing of one primary and secondary school in this manner would allow us to know the current prevalence of the virus in schools so we can better utilise resources and make evidence-based decisions in the interests of health, safety and education.

It would also give us further insight into how the virus has impacted on pupils in different areas and regions. Similar testing of whole schools in Ontario, Canada, recently found a positivity rate for Covid of 4.3 per cent, which was lower than the rate in the surrounding community, and helped provide reassurance to staff, pupils and families. 

A host of important decisions – not least regarding whether or not exams will go ahead – rely on a thorough understanding of the impact of Covid on education. A system of testing as outlined above could be an important tool in our understanding.

Barry Black is a postgraduate education researcher and a North East Scotland candidate for Labour in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections

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