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Headteachers’ leaders call for return of free Covid tests

Free lateral flow tests were discontinued on April 1 (Danny Lawson/PA)
Free lateral flow tests were discontinued on April 1 (Danny Lawson/PA)

Headteachers’ leaders have criticised Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for his “continued failure” to respond to them over the “acute” Covid situation in schools as they call for a reintroduction of free lateral flow tests.

Free lateral flow tests for pupils and staff were discontinued on April 1.

In the open letter from the Association of School and College Leaders and the NAHT school leaders’ union, headteachers’ leaders said they are “deeply concerned” about the Government’s “apparent lack of concern and support” for pupils and staff as they faced the next phase of Covid.

They said that their members had reported greater Covid-related disruption in their schools and colleges over the last few weeks “than at any previous point during the pandemic” and that for many members, it could prove the “final straw”.

One head said that coronavirus had created the longest staff absence list they could remember in over 25 years of teaching.

Another reported that 342 of their 800 pupils had been absent having tested positive for Covid – including 64 out of 150 Year 11 pupils, while 25 out of 51 teachers had also been off with Covid.

“My senior team and myself are covering 3/4 classes in the gym together daily and we have also had to ask year groups to learn from home on a rotation over the last week just so we can get by. Whilst some staff have had mild symptoms some are getting very ill and I find this such a worry,” another said.

Sunday Morning
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (Aaron Chown/PA)

General secretaries Geoff Barton and Paul Whiteman highlighted how the latest Government figures on school attendance showed that Covid-related pupil absence on 17 March was 2.5%, up from 0.7% the previous fortnight, while staff absence was 9.1%, up from 5.8% on 3 March.

“Anecdotally, our members tell us that the situation has worsened further in the intervening period,” they said.

They added that “in the face of this extensive and ongoing disruption” the decision to remove free Covid lateral flow tests for nearly all pupils and staff “feels reckless in the extreme”.

They added that there was no evidence for Government guidance for pupils who tested positive to isolate for three days rather than the five days recommended for adults.

The unions said they had written to Mr Zahawi on 9 March asking for free tests to remain available for school staff with possible coronavirus symptoms to minimise disruption to education, but that they had had no reply.

They said the Government’s decision to publish GCSE and A-level league tables this year was “inappropriate” given the levels of disruption, while sharing the results of SATs tests with Ofsted was “even more inappropriate”.

“This plan seemed misguided when it was first announced; given the current situation in our schools and colleges it now feels frankly absurd,” they said.

They said that publishing “inaccurate and meaningless” data would add to headteachers’ “extreme stress”, exacerbating the recruitment and retention crisis.

“These decisions have consequences. Failing to control the transmission of Covid in schools and colleges is making it increasingly difficult for leaders to keep their settings open, and to ensure pupils receive a high-quality education when they are there,” they added.

They said this was “compounding” the disruption young people had already experienced to their education, while allowing staff and pupils potentially to contract Covid multiple times was harmful for their long-term health.

The heads’ leaders called on Mr Zahawi to reconsider the decision to abandon free tests and commit to “not publishing performance tables, or using this year’s Key Stage 2, GCSE, A-level or vocational exam results for any form of accountability this year”.

The letter said that they had frequently spoken to Mr Zahawi and the DfE about these issues, adding: “You will have noticed that these representations have become stronger and more frequent as a result of your continued failure to respond to the genuine and increasingly acute experience of our members.”

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said he had written to Mr Zahawi because “school and college leaders increasingly feel abandoned by a government which does not seem to care that Covid is causing chaos in education settings and that the first public exams in three years are just weeks away.”

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “We have repeatedly warned the government that education is at breaking point. We hear sympathetic words and acknowledgement of the great work our members do but see little actual action to bring relief to the chaos.”

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