Mass testing in schools on brink of collapse as unions back heads who refuse to take part

Camilla Turner
·3-min read
A student of Newcastle Sixth Form College performs a lateral flow antigen test
A student of Newcastle Sixth Form College performs a lateral flow antigen test

The roll-out of mass testing in schools is on the brink of collapse after unions said they “fully support” headteachers who refuse to take part.

A joint statement from all the major education unions, school governors and the Church of England which runs around a quarter of the nation’s schools, said the proposals were “inoperable”.

They accused the Government of making a “chaotic and rushed” announcement on the final day of term, adding that it is “simply not realistic” to expect schools to recruit, train and organise volunteers to administer tests in time for the start of next term.

The intervention will come as a major blow for ministers, who are relying on the co-operation of headteachers to implement plans for mass testing of teenagers during the first week of January and throughout the Spring term. 

On Thursday, the Education Secretary announced that the return to secondary school will be delayed by up to a week to enable the roll out of mass testing.

Most secondary students will not be back in the classroom until January 11, a full week after the official start of term, and will instead be taught remotely.

Pupils Year 11 and Year 13 who are preparing for their GCSE and A-levels will be allowed to come back to school on January 4 along with anyone taking vocational qualifications that week, the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters.

An official handbook which was sent to headteahers this week said that the tests could be administered by either existing school staff, newly hired temporary staff or by an army of parents and volunteers who they will need to recruit and train over the Christmas break.

But on Friday, seven organisations and unions representing sixth-form colleges, school governors, teachers and headteachers said that the announcement has put them in an “impossible” position.

They said schools have their “full support” if they decide to refuse the Government’s mass testing offer during the first week of January.

“All our organisations are supportive of the concept of the use of lateral flow tests in schools. Many of our organisations have been actively calling for such tests for some time,” they said.

“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.

“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.”

Lateral flow tests, which give results in 30 minutes, will be used, and testing kits will be sent out to schools ready for the start of term.

Each student will be given two rapid antigen tests, three days apart, and if either test shows a positive result a second sample will be sent to a laboratory for confirmation. Students who decline to have tests will still be allowed to go to school.

On Friday, the schools minister Nick Gibb said that volunteers would not need to have DBS checks as long as they were being supervised to carry out the work.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Testing on this scale means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their schools and colleges without the need to self-isolate.

“Schools and colleges taking part in asymptomatic testing will help identify positive cases, break chains of transmission and reassure parents and teachers about returning to school and college for the spring term.

“We do not underestimate the challenges involved and scale of delivering this, which is why a cross-government operation is being mobilised to support schools and colleges.”