Unions tell ministers mass testing plans are ‘inoperable’, and pledge to back schools who refuse

School leaders say the government must not expect schools themselves to run on-site daily testing.

Unions and professional associations have said they will fully back schools that are “unable” to deliver mass testing from next month, claiming it will be “inoperable for most schools”.

In a statement today, the groups said “no school or college should come under pressure if they are unable to implement these plans, or if they believe it would be unsafe to do so”.

The statement, issued by the NAHT, ASCL, NASUWT and the National Education Union, along with the National Governance Association, Church of England Education Office and Association of Colleges, comes amid uproar from the sector over the last-minute announcement of mass testing after the Christmas break.

A Department for Education press release, published yesterday, stated that “testing will be optional but strongly encouraged, particularly in areas of higher prevalence of the virus”.

However, the relationship between the government and the sector appears to be at an all-time low after the eleventh-hour announcement, which included plans to stagger pupils’ return after the Christmas break. It came just days after ministers took legal action against a council last week over plans to move schools to remote learning for the last week of term.

In their joint statement, the organisations said the “chaotic and rushed nature” of the announcement, coupled with a “lack of proper guidance, and an absence of appropriate support” meant the government’s plan in its current form “will be inoperable for most schools and colleges”.

“Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner.”

The unions added any school unable to set up the testing system will “will receive the full support of our respective organisations. Any of our members who come under unreasonable pressure are advised to contact us immediately.”

Ministers announced on Tuesday that secondary school staff will get routine weekly tests from January and that staff and pupils who were close contacts of positive cases will also get a daily test for seven days so they don’t have to self-isolate.

The DfE has since announced that schools will be sent additional tests so that secondary pupils can have two tests, three days apart in the new year, even if they are not a close contact of a confirmed case.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said the government had “handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the 11th hour”.

“By dropping this on schools minutes before the end of term, leaders are left with no time to implement government’s instructions,” he said.

“Covid testing should be administered and organised by those with the relevant expertise and experience, schools and colleges simply do not have the capacity to staff and run Covid testing sites themselves, whilst also providing education and vital pastoral support. Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail.”

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