Education unions warn mass Covid tests are undeliverable by start of spring term

Education unions and associations have today joined together in advising secondary schools and colleges that they are not required to begin mass Covid testing from the start of the spring term.
The government yesterday announced that all secondary schools and colleges in England will be able to test staff and students from the first week of January.

However, organisations representing school and college leaders, teachers, and governors are concerned that the plans outlined by the government for rapid testing are not deliverable by the start of next term given that there are only two weeks to plan for this programme over the Christmas holiday period and numerous outstanding issues that must be addressed.

The plans require schools and colleges to recruit and train staff, and put in place processes to manage a large-scale testing programme. There are a number of unanswered questions including exactly what staff are expected to do, and what costs will be covered by the government, which have to be resolved before testing can begin. It is imperative that any testing programme is sufficiently resourced with suitably trained staff.

The Association of Colleges (AoC), Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Church of England Education Office, National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), NASUWT teachers’ union, National Education Union (NEU), National Governance Association (NGA), and Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), are sending joint advice to their members today.

The advice states: “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. Any of our members who come under unreasonable pressure are advised to contact us immediately.”

It goes on to state that schools and colleges stand ready to support the national effort to roll out mass testing, and that our organisations invite the government to discuss with us what support will be needed for the roll-out of lateral flow tests.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, 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.”

Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the National Governance Association, said:

Large scale testing is clearly an important priority but the lateness of this announcement and the huge degree of pressure that this places on school leaders as a result is unacceptable and irresponsible. The expectation for schools to assemble a workforce and roll this out in the next few working days is both unreasonable and unviable.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges, said:

Colleges and schools have done everything they can to protect students and staff whilst keeping learning happening, and they will continue to do so. This is not about whether or not testing is the right thing to do – it is about doing it properly. The announcement on Thursday simply puts unfair pressure on leaders and staff who have already had to endure so much over the last nine months because having mass testing in place by 4th January is an impossible target for most. College and school leaders are being set up to fail and that’s not right. I know they will do what is achievable and they have shown throughout the pandemic that they will always deliver on urgent priorities, but sadly, this proposal is not realistic and nor is it currently backed up with the resources, guidance and support necessary to achieve it.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said

We all want pupils and school staff to be as safe as possible in school but an unplanned, uncoordinated and unworkable approach to mass testing without the provision of adequate resources and additional trained personnel risks undermining, rather than enhancing Covid safety.

The Government must work with schools and colleges on a sensible timescale for the roll out of testing which is backed with the necessary practical and financial support to ensure safety and support the continued fight against Covid-19.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"The rising infection rates amongst secondary pupils has been alarming and mass testing has been necessary for many months. The Government’s last minute and ill thought through plans for schools and colleges to administer these tests is unacceptable and could jeopardise something that is so essential to bring down Covid rates in schools, colleges, and society. Government needs to get around the table with education unions to discuss how we salvage this situation and get a testing system that is operable and effective.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said:

The government have handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the 11th hour. By dropping this on schools minutes before the end of term, leaders are left with no time to implement government’s instructions. Covid testing should be administered and organised by those with the relevant expertise and experience, schools and colleges simply do not have the capacity to staff and run Covid testing sites themselves, whilst also providing education and vital pastoral support. Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail.”

Bill Watkin, Chief Executive, 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.”