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School mass-testing plan by the start of next term ‘inoperable’

21 December 2020


Volunteers using lateral flow antigen at a test centre at Edinburgh University at the start of December before students returned home at the end of term

Volunteers using lateral flow antigen at a test centre at Edinburgh University at the start of December before students returned home at the end of te...

THE Church of England’s chief education officer has joined leaders of teaching unions and associations in an angry letter of protest to the Government over plans for the mass testing of secondary school pupils that it described as “chaotic” and “inoperable”.

The Government announced without warning last week, the day before schools were due to break up for Christmas, that lateral flow testing for all secondary-school and college pupils would start in schools during the week beginning 4 January: an initiative described by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, as “amazing”, “wonderful”, and “a good news story” on the Radio 4 Today programme last Friday.

It would require school staff to carry out the tests, in a dedicated area separating out swabbing and testing. Eleven million tests kits would be delivered to schools, allowing for every pupil to be tested twice within a week.

The disbelief of head teachers, who were already having to continue track and trace for their pupils during the first week of the holidays, was compounded by the interview with Mr Gibb, which revealed a lack of understanding about how schools operated. Asked by Martha Kearney where all this was to take place, the Minister said, “Secondary schools are fairly large, and they will all have halls, and so on.”

Ms Kearney drew his attention to the estimate by one head teacher that it would take nine members of staff three hours to test 100 children. The Minister said: “All those operational details will be published next week, and what we’re saying is that volunteers will be used and agency staff as well, and there’s some funding for schools to be able to employ agency staff.”

He confirmed that the schools would have to recruit their own volunteers for this “national effort”, and that parents volunteering would not need to be safety checked because they would be supervised by teachers.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, tweeted of the interview: “There can’t have been many interviewees as unprepared as Nick Gibb on Radio 4 today. The lack of answers to the most basic questions on school-based Covid testing appears calculated to push teachers’ stress levels above maximum and deprive them of any holiday at all.”

The joint statement sent by the unions, teaching associations, and the C of E’s chief education office, the Revd Nigel Genders, emphasised that all were supportive of the use of lateral-flow tests in schools — and that, indeed, many of them had been actively calling for such tests for some time.

It said: “However, it is our view that, due to the chaotic and rushed nature of the announcement, the lack of proper guidance and an absence of appropriate support, the Government’s plan in its current form will be inoperable in 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 a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner.”

The statement notes that mass-testing pilots till now have made use of members of the armed forces or other external trained staff. “This appears not to be the case for the latest proposals.

“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.”

In the absence of detailed guidance or a coherent plan, no school or college, they say, should come under pressure if they are unable to implement these plans or believe it would be unsafe to do so.

Pupils, staff, and parents will rightly expect that testing “is done by those with appropriate expertise and experience,” the statement goes on. “We urge Government to engage with our respective organisations to discuss what support will be needed for the roll-out of lateral flow testing in schools and colleges to make it a success.”

The Church of England runs 4700 schools across the country. Mr Genders said on Friday: “Schools have been under enormous pressure during an unprecedented year, and it is both unfair and risky to ask staff to prepare implementation of a testing programme before the right guidance has been issued during a Christmas break already obliterated by additional administrative burdens.

“We support lateral flow testing in schools, but we must ensure that exhaustion and under-preparedness does not lead to mistakes in its delivery.”

Praise has been given for the way head teachers and school staff have coped with enormous demands. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “Head teachers and school staff have been amazing these past months. They deserve our thanks and praise. They need a rest and chance to be with the ones they love without having to do extra work over Christmas. Emotional, mental, and social health matter, too.”

Thanks came in also from the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, together with “prayers for all you have to face next term”. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said: “Heads, staff, governors — we know you’re exhausted, and you will be working in the break, too. You are an inspiration, and we are thankful.”

But the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, had little patience with those complaining, describing them as part of the “noises off” heard throughout the Government’s handling of the coronavirus. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sunday morning, he said: “There are three weeks between now and the start of term, and I appreciate, like so many people in the NHS, there is going to have to be some work over the Christmas break. That’s absolutely fine. . .

“Of course, in a massive system like the schools system, you can always find somebody who’s going to complain. The vast majority, I tell you, want to educate children, and make sure they’re safe, and use the testing regime that we now have in place to make that happen.”

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