Mass Covid testing in England’s schools

Mass Covid testing in England’s schools

Mass Covid testing at the drop of a hat is the latest bad idea for England’s schools

After the exams fiasco, a plan to turn schools into test centres shows politicians have still not learned to listen to teachers

Schools returning in January must provide for mass testing of pupils. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Mon 21 Dec 2020 13.56 GMT

It is hard to believe just how badly the government is handling the schools element of this Covid-induced crisis. Last week’s decision to threaten Greenwich council with legal action over its attempts to curb galloping infection rates looked heavy-handed from the start. Given that those same alarming numbers were acknowledged by the prime minister in his announcement on Saturday of the cancellation of Christmas relaxation plans, such threats now appear both absurd and rankly hypocritical.

Yet even this misjudgment is overshadowed by the chaos threatened by the government’s latest wacky idea: schools returning in early January must provide for the mass testing of pupils, turning themselves into the equivalent of a field hospital. Even the most politic of school leaders have called this announcement “shockingly chaotic”, “last-minute” and “a new low”.

While Scotland has sensibly delayed pupils’ physical return to schools by two weeks, here in England heads and governors must supposedly spend their Christmas break sorting out staggered starting times from early January, erecting or otherwise creating special testing centres and coordinating the staff to administer the tests (a medical not an educational task), with only vague offers of “reimbursement costs” and the involvement of the army.

Few need reminding that this is not the first such fiasco of the past nine months. The disaster over last summer’s exams, when the government was adamant that it would rely on official algorithms to predict results, until forced by public outrage to back down, remains deeply etched on the public mind. Yet it looks as if we are heading for similar problems next summer as the government is, once again, stubbornly sticking to its line that there will be exams-as-usual, albeit with minor concessions over timings and course content. In a pattern now becoming typical of the Johnson government, most nervously expect a late U-turn, and more chaos like we saw in August. Only this time, it could have been entirely preventable, with the introduction of moderated assessment in many, if not all, subjects.

Talking to teachers, heads and union leaders, I hear rising fury and despair at recent government actions and policies, many of them unworkable, un-costed and pushed out at the very last minute. Above all, there has been a lamentable failure in human tone. A London head told me that she had received a recent communication from the government promising that it “would not sue” schools if they failed to roll out mass testing. She then added wearily: “Anyway what would they sue us for? We have no money.”

The autumn term could also have looked very different if the government had approached this crisis in a spirit of “collaboration, not conflict” and adopted the kinds of measures outlined by Independent Sage in its report An Urgent Plan for Safer Schools. These include: earlier testing of asymptomatic pupils and teachers; the introduction of smaller bubbles (preventing the situation where whole year groups were sent home as the result of a single case); more thought-through plans for ventilation and social distancing; the creation of local public health teams to oversee the right health measures; and, of course, provision for the neediest families, including the efficient rollout of laptops and free school meals during the holidays. There should have been much greater reliance on, and support for, a sustainable system of blended learning, a mix of on-site and online lessons.

According to one senior school leader, “on every count the government has been behind the curve” and has failed to halt the spread of infection in schools, recently confirmed by Independent Sage as a key source of rising rates among the general population. School leaders support the introduction of mass testing, but think it can only be done by returning to remote learning for most pupils for at least a couple of weeks in January, with the vulnerable and children of key workers taught on-site as happened last March, while the plan is carefully implemented. Testing should be supervised through national or local health teams, with schools providing the venue and appropriate administrative support.

It is hard not to see the legal threats to councils and the crazy January scheme as the extreme and farcical culmination of a decade of arrogance and incoherent decision-making by the Tories on education. Over the past 10 years, diktat has followed diktat, from the 2010 Academies Act, rushed through with unprecedented haste, to the ministerial rewriting of primary and secondary curriculums with scant consultation. Austerity measures pared school funding to worryingly low levels leaving many schools to handle the enormous demands of the pandemic on deficit budgets.

Despite the faux-egalitarian rhetoric of key figures such as the former education secretary Michael Gove, this ruthless agenda deliberately cut out consultation with the majority of the profession from the outset, relying instead on a few favoured school leaders and some special advisers with eccentric ideas. The teacher unions were treated as a marginal special interest group and local councils declared the useless remnants of a failed collectivist past, while mass academisation decisively broke the link between rich local knowledge and public education.

The pandemic has brought out the very worst of this on-high, out-of-touch style in the party that has been in government for 10 years. According toIndependent Sage, the situation in “the worst affected schools and communities is (now) characterised by confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion”.

If the government wants to avoid further chaos, it needs urgently to acquire some genuine respect for the experience and knowledge of educators on the ground, those who know what’s best for the children they teach, and to listen and consult more widely, including with local representatives who understand their communities. If it cannot quickly rebuild trust with heads, teachers, unions and councils it risks tipping an already beleaguered public service into justified outright rebellion.

  • Melissa Benn is a founder of the Local Schools Network, and author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service.

Originally published on December 21 2020 in the Guardian

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