Schools that cannot set up mass testing for January should not have to – unions

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

Secondary schools and colleges which are unable to set up mass Covid-19 testing of students for the first week of January should not be forced to, according to advice from a coalition of education unions.

Headteachers, governors and teachers have been told they will receive the “full support” of their union or professional association if they decide they cannot carry out coronavirus tests at the start of term.

It comes after the Government announced secondary school and college pupils’ return to class in England will be staggered in the first week of January to help schools roll out mass testing of students.

Covid-19 case rates in regions of England
(PA Graphics)

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the tests will be administered by volunteers and agency staff and details will be published next week.

But education unions and professional associations have jointly warned that testing in secondary schools will not be ready at the start of January due to the Government’s last-minute announcement of the scheme at the end of term.

The advice said: “Many of our organisations have been actively calling for such tests for some time.

“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 joint statement is from the NAHT school leaders’ union, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, the Association of Colleges (AoC), the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), the National Governance Association (NGA) and the Church of England Education Office.

It comes after Mr Gibb said the volunteers carrying out rapid Covid-19 tests in secondary schools and colleges in January would not need a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check because they will be “supervised” by staff.

The joint advice from unions and education organisations, sent out to members on Friday afternoon, said: “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.

“All our organisations agree that educational staff have once again been put in an impossible position as a result of this latest announcement.”

On Thursday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the majority of secondary school and college pupils will start the term online and all face-to-face lessons will resume on January 11.

The Government said the staggered return to in-person lessons would allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children from the first week of term.

It came after Mr Williamson threatened legal action against Greenwich Council earlier this week after it advised schools to switch to remote education for most pupils in the last week of term.

The advice to schools from education unions and organisations added: “Given that the Government’s own guidance makes it clear this is an optional offer, no school or college should come under pressure if they are unable to implement these plans, or if they believe it would be unsafe to do so.

“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.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, urged ministers 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”.

David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, said: “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 January 4 is an impossible target for most.

“College and school leaders are being set up to fail and that’s not right.”

Sam Henson, director of policy and information at the NGA, added: “The expectation for schools to assemble a workforce and roll this out in the next few working days is both unreasonable and unviable.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the 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.”

The GMB union, which represents school staff, has said it will tell its members not to volunteer for the mass testing rollout until “proper safeguards” are in place.

Karen Leonard, GMB national officer, said: “The operational guidelines will not be issued until next week, yet schools close today. It’s nonsense.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education 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.”