Schools will now be “required” to roll-out mass testing, education secretary Gavin Williamson said this morning, causing further confusion after the government’s botched back-to-school announcement.
Schools had been told those who wanted to could offer testing for their pupils from next week. This was “optional, but strongly encouraged”, the Department for Education said earlier this month.
However, Williamson has now announced, during an interview with Radio 4 this morning, that schools are required to offer testing.
He said schools will receive their testing equipment on Monday, with £78 million funding to pay for staff to oversee the tests, adding: “This is why in moving from an offer of this to something that we expect and require all schools to deliver we’re giving them that extra bit of time to fully stand up this testing regime.”
The delayed return to school, announced yesterday, means secondary schools will only have vulnerable and key worker children on-site next week.
Exam year group pupils are due back in school on Monday, January 11, with all pupils due back in school on the following Monday.
The Department for Education confirmed this morning that it expects all schools and colleges to use the first week back to prepare for delivering testing.
The move to make it mandatory for schools to provide testing caught most of the sector by surprise this morning. However it’s now emerged that updated guidance published yesterday now has a new line stating: “All schools are expected to take up this offer of asymptomatic testing.”
Williamson outlined the new plans for re-opening with a statement in the House of Commons yesterday. However he omitted to mention the change in approach until later in the session.
Responding to a question from an MP, Williamson said the new Covid strain means we “have to take a different approach. That is why we are saying that the mass testing regime we are rolling out in our secondary schools has to move from being optional and an offer to schools to being something we require schools to do. Schools are a unique environment, and it is important that we put as many protections in place as we can.”
The timeframe for when schools must offer testing isn’t clear. The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.
But Williamson said yesterday that testing will “begin in earnest” in the week starting January 11. This is the week when exam pupils return to on-site provision, and Williamson said they will be “at the head of the queue” for tests.
“This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on 18 January in most areas,” he said yesterday. “To allow this focus on the establishment of testing throughout the first week of term, exam year groups will continue to have lessons remotely, in line with what they would receive in class, and only vulnerable children and the children of critical workers will have face-to-face teaching.”
There has been confusion over the government’s expectations of what remote education secondary schools should provide next week.
The Department for Education has said its policy is that outlined in new guidance, which states: “Prioritise resource for remote education for exam year groups – remote education should be provided to other years as resources permit.”
However, the legal duty on schools to provide remote education for all pupils will remain in place. The DfE did not want to provide a statement.
Despite concerns over the accuracy of the rapid tests to be rolled out in schools, Williamson claimed the programme will “benefit the whole community”.
He said this was about “taking the battle to coronavirus and rolling out more testing that ever before – these are the actions we need to take to beat this virus.”
Primaries in Covid hotspot areas will not reopen for on-site provision for the next two weeks, with a review after the two-week delay to decide whether to lift restrictions.
Williamson said he was “absolutely confident that all schools are returning”.