The National Education Union and NASUWT have criticised today’s announcement by the government that secondary schools should stagger students’ return after Christmas.
The government has announced that the return of pupils to secondary schools will be staggered in England following the Christmas break, with some students starting the new term online rather than in class.
The move is designed to allow schools to set-up COVID-19 testing schemes – but pupils in exam years will start the term as normal to minimise disruption.
Other than those taking GCSEs, A-levels and vocational exams next year, secondary school pupils will study online for the first week back in January as a testing operation is put into place which Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says will “clamp down” on the virus after the Christmas break.
The mass testing will offer school staff a COVID-19 test every week and a daily test for seven days for pupils who have been in contact with a positive case. Pupils in exam years who are returning to face-to-face lessons will be offered tests – which will all be carried out on a voluntary basis and require parental consent.
Face-to-face learning is expected to re-start for all secondary school pupils in England by 11 January.
In response to the announcement, teaching and education unions have criticised the timing of the government’s “panic” decision – with the National Association of Head Teachers calling it a “shambles”. The union’s leader Paul Whiteman said: “They have handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the eleventh hour.”
The NEU said the timing of the decision “demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action”. NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “The NEU was amongst the first to ask for mass testing of school pupils. But today’s announcement by government, made on the last day of term, demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action in response to the exponential rise in Covid-19 infection rates amongst secondary school pupils.
“The government is asking secondary school leaders to contact, train and deploy an army of volunteers to administer testing to the whole of England’s secondary school population. Armed with a 30-minute training video they are being asked to administer tests to adolescents – who may have their own views about what is quite an invasive procedure. Parents will be required to give their consent to their children being tested. They will have to be contacted – in itself, a huge task.
“The presence of year 11 and 13 pupils on the school site at the same time as the testing arrangements and procedures are being put in place will be extremely problematic. It is highly likely that these pupils will return from their Christmas holiday with higher levels of Covid-19 infection. Those who test positive will be required to isolate, which involves a huge amount of school staff taking the time to contact parents and to trace close contacts. Yet again government ministers fail to understand the fundamental issues involved, and the effort and time it takes to operate Covid security procedures in schools.
“All of these problems are compounded by the findings of the BMJ that half of positive cases are missed if the tests are not done by trained medical personnel. Governors and parents have an important role to play in children and young people’s education. The majority of them, however, have no medical training. However well intentioned, they will not be able to identify and isolate a significant proportion of Covid cases amongst the secondary school age population – many will be asymptomatic.
“We are writing to Gavin Williamson today with a series of urgent questions about today’s announcement. This announcement follows a long and ignoble tradition by this government of treating school leaders with contempt. Trust is completely broken. This government has finally put a seal on an exodus of education professionals in 2021.”
NASUWT also questioned the timing of the announcement and urged the government to take further action. NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “The government’s latest announcement demonstrates that Covid-19 transmission in schools is a major factor in continuing the spread of the virus. Delaying the return of some pupils in secondary schools by a week may be of some assistance, but much more action is needed to keep pupils, staff and their families safe.
“The failure of the government to recognise the very real Coronavirus risks impacting on primary and special schools is a major cause for concern. Yet again the government is announcing significant changes affecting schools with little or no time to prepare before the Christmas closure period.
“The NASUWT has been clear that it is not the responsibility of teachers or school leaders to undertake testing of pupils or employees. The government has to ensure that it puts into place all the necessary resources needed to deliver the practical and financial support to schools to ensure safety in schools. The announcement by the Health Minister does not deliver the resources needed.
“Alongside the introduction of mass testing, the government must urgently take further action to ensure that essential Covid-safety measures are securely in place in all schools and colleges to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus amongst pupils and staff.”