Plea over axing of free tests as Covid infections spike once again

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

School leaders have urged the government to continue to make free Covid tests available from April 1 after the recent improvement in infection rates proved to be a “false dawn”.

Both pupil and staff absence have risen dramatically over the past two weeks raising the prospect of significant disruption in the run-up to the Easter break.

Staff absence is of particular concern as, once again, nearly one in 10 teachers and school leaders are off school because of Covid.

The latest attendance figures are for March 17 (DfE, 2022) and paint a much more sobering picture than the promising March 3 statistics. They show:

  • Covid-related pupil absence is running at 2.5%, up from 0.7%. This equates to 202,000 children and young people. Of these, 159,000 had a confirmed case (up from 45,000).
  • Attendance in state schools is down to 89.7% (from 92.2%). For primary schools it has fallen from 95.1% to 92%; for secondaries it has fallen from 89% to 87.4%.
  • Teacher and school leader absence has hit 9.1% (up from 5.8%), while 8.5% of support staff are also off (up from 5.4%). This equates to 48,000 teachers and school leaders and 60,000 support staff, including teaching assistants.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “These statistics chime with what we are hearing from schools. Once again many are seeing very severe disruption caused by Covid with high levels of both pupil and staff absence.

“The improvement in the picture we saw in the national data in early March has proved to be a false dawn.

Drilling down into the data shows us that 23% of all state schools (about 5,000 schools) had more than 15% of their teachers and school leaders off on March 17.

Mr Barton added: “It is very clear that the government must as an absolute minimum continue to make available free Covid testing for education settings after April 1, and that it must extend and simplify financial assistance for the cost of supply cover beyond the end of this term when the current scheme is due to end.”

The government has said it will end public access to free tests from April 1 as part of its Living with Covid Strategy. The legal requirement for people to self-isolate following a positive test ended in late February, although the government’s guidance still advises self-isolation.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that staff absence is “once again a big concern” and was “as bad as the very start of term”.

He continued: “Many schools are reporting that it is near impossible to find supply staff to cover and there is no doubt that this level of disruption has a negative impact on pupils. Right now, many school leaders are facing a huge challenge when it comes to maintaining educational provision.

“The government urgently needs to remind people that just because the legal requirement to isolate has been removed, there is still a duty to take appropriate action to reduce the spread of Covid – just like any other illness. Parents need to be clear on when they can send their children to school and when they need to stay at home.

“Removing free access to lateral flow tests at this point feels irresponsible. It will make tracking and controlling Covid almost impossible. There is a lot of anxiety from school leaders about what could happen once tests are unavailable.”

Dr MaryBousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, added: "The government's plan to end regular testing in schools and free testing in the community after this month is clearly a bad call. We have got to see a change of course on Covid policy from the top, with testing remaining free and at school level a renewed and much more far-reaching commitment to monitoring, air filtration, and other building requirements. Living with Covid must not mean ignoring it."

  • DfE: Week 12: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3wvjd3E


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