'Reckless in the extreme' – school leaders issue free testing plea

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

“We continue to hear a sense of deep frustration from school leaders as they struggle to deal with the significant and on-going disruption caused by Covid – while the government removes every measure they have for controlling it.”

School leaders are pleading with the government to reverse the decision to withdraw free Covid testing for pupils and staff.

A joint letter from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says that Covid disruption during the past few weeks has been greater than at any point since the pandemic began.

The two organisations represent the vast majority of England’s school leaders, and they warn that it is “increasingly difficult for leaders to keep their schools open”.

The letter states: “In the face of this extensive and on-going disruption, the government’s decision to remove free access to symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for almost all pupils and staff feels reckless in the extreme.”

The government ended 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 has also ended, although the government’s guidance still advises self-isolation.

There is further confusion at the Department for Education’s advice, emailed to schools last week, that pupils who do test positive for Covid should isolate for just three days, rather than the five days recommended for adults.

The ASCL and NAHT letter added: “The government has also provided no evidence for its suggestion that children who do manage to obtain tests should only isolate for three days, rather than the five days recommended for adults.”

The advice, which schools received on March 31 – a day before free Covid testing was withdrawn – adds that children who are unwell with a high temperature should be kept at home until they get better.

It comes as DfE estimates show that 179,000 pupils did not attend school on March 31 due to Covid, including 120,000 with a confirmed case. This figure is down from 202,000 on March 17.

Despite the reduction, on-site attendance has still fallen. Primary schools reported attendance at 91.8% on March 31, down from 92% on March 17. Secondaries reported 85.3% attendance, down from 87.4%.

However, staff absence is improving slightly, with 46,000 teachers and school leaders absent on March 31 (down from 48,000 on March 17), and 59,000 support staff absent (down from 60,000).

One in five schools, however, still had more than 15% of their teachers and school leaders absent on March 31.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We continue to hear a sense of deep frustration from school leaders as they struggle to deal with the significant and on-going disruption caused by Covid – while the government removes every measure they have for controlling it.

“We all assumed ‘living with Covid’ meant there would be very low case levels – this is clearly not case and absence rates remain at concerningly high-levels. School leaders feel they have been abandoned.

“The on-going risk of illness and chaos caused by staff absence, not to mention the mounting pressure of exams, SATs, and Ofsted, is unsustainable. Our members and education are at breaking point.”

His counterpart at ASCL, Geoff Barton, added: “The situation remains grave with very severe disruption continuing in many schools and colleges. These figures show that a fifth of schools had more than 15% of their teachers absent last week. It is very difficult to operate in these conditions.”

“Abandoning free testing in this context, and with public exams looming, makes absolutely no sense at all. The most likely outcome of all of this is that there will be more cases and more transmission in schools with more disruption including among students taking exams. It is a shambles.”

The joint letter also asks education secretary Nadhim Zahawi to rethink the decision to publish school performance tables based on this summer’s exam results, and the decision to share key stage 2 SATs results with Ofsted.

The two unions have also published comments from their members illustrating the situation schools are facing:

  • “Covid 19 has created the longest staff absence list I can remember in over 25 years of teaching. In our department, Covid has hit many staff; we have had between 3 and 5 teachers out of school every day for the past month due to Covid 19, many for significant periods of time. The school is now receiving complaints about staff absence and year groups being sent home. The government has peddled the narrative that the pandemic is effectively over, and everything is back to normal – and there is barely any coverage in the media of how Covid rates have hit schools.”
  • “Since Christmas, 342 of our 800 pupils have been absent having tested positive for Covid – including 64 of our 150 year 11 pupils. I have also had 25 of our 51 teachers absent with Covid.”
  • “In our one-form entry primary school, we've had 55 confirmed cases of Covid in the last two weeks. Staff absence was at 40% for two weeks (45% of teachers and TAs absent), most of it Covid-related and most staff too unwell to work from home. There were no suitable supply teachers. I had to make the difficult decision to move to remote learning for five classes at different stages in the last two weeks.”
  • “My senior team and myself are covering 3/4 classes in the gym together daily and we have also had to ask year groups to learn from home on a rotation over the last week just so we can get by. While some staff have had mild symptoms some are getting very ill and I find this such a worry.”

  • ASCL & NAHT: Letter to the secretary of state for education, April 2022: https://bit.ly/3LLdnPM
  • DfE: Week 14: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, April 5, 2022: https://bit.ly/3Jhq0Au

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