The schools minister Nick Gibb has set out further details about the government’s mass-testing programme for schools, which is due to begin in January.
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.
In a series of broadcast interviews this morning, Gibb set out the government’s thinking. Here’s what we learned.
1. It looks like leaders WILL have to work over Christmas
When it first announced the testing programme on Tuesday, the DfE said there was “no expectation that school and college staff will need to work on this over the Christmas break”.
But some headteachers have warned this won’t be the case, with some operational details still unconfirmed and most schools now having already broken up.
When pressed on the issue on the Today Programme, Gibb appeared to suggest leaders would have to put in some hours over the break.
“This is a national effort. It won’t just be the schools alone doing this. We’re working across government with the Department of Health, with Test and Trace.”
He was also grilled over the government’s decision to announce the testing scheme details at the end of term.
“Well we announced it yesterday, December 17, and it takes place from January 4 next year,” he told Sky News.
2. Detailed guidance ‘next week’
Schools have already been issued with a number of documents to read about the testing regime.
Initial guidance was provided on Tuesday, and some schools were also sent a handbook from NHS Test and Trace, which revealed details like the number of roles that will need to be filled the space that will be needed.
Testing is also covered in new guidance on the January return, published yesterday.
However, Gibb said today that further guidance will be published “next week”, well after the end of term for most schools.
“We’ve already published some guidance but the detail, operational details will be published next week as we work this through,” he told Today.
3. Schools encouraged to use ‘volunteers’…
Pressed on who would carry out the tests, Gibb told Today that “volunteers will be used and agency staff as well”, adding that the DfE would cover the cost of additional staff.
The handbook for schools states that schools can use their own staff, school nurses, volunteers and temporary staff.
But Gibb said this morning that teachers would not be expected to administer the tests, stating they were already “fully occupied” with teaching and remote education.
When asked where schools would find volunteers, the minister said they were already “involved with school activity through governors, through parents being involved, and we all want to ensure that schools are safe places for our students”.
Asked about how volunteers could be persuaded to go into “petri dish” schools on Sky News, Gibb said: “Well there’s PPE available, and also people are very community minded.”
4. …but Gibb says they’ll have to be supervised
The minister was challenged over the use of volunteers and whether they would need a DBS check to be in schools.
“In terms of DBS checks, volunteers don’t need them providing they are supervised, and they will of course be supervised,” said Gibb
Questions about staffing have arisen after Schools Week revealed that the government handbook suggested that testing 100 people in three “bays” in a school would take three hours and involve nine members of the testing “workforce”.
This is based on 11 to 13 tests an hour.
Under such a model, if all 3,456 of England’s state secondary schools tested 100 pupils on the same day, they would need over 31,000 staff to do so.
Some have already pointed out that testing every pupil in a 1,000-roll secondary school could not be done in one school day with only three bays, meaning the number of bays – and therefore staffing – would probably have to be even higher.
5. Secondary schools ‘will all have’ space
The handbook for schools published by NHS Test and Trace states schools will need to set up a dedicated testing site with room for multiple bays and desks, and ideally a one-way system in place.
Gibb was asked this morning about where schools would find space to carry out the testing, but expressed confidence in their ability.
“Well secondary schools are fairly large and they will all have halls and so on where they can actually conduct the testing,” he said.