School leaders say removing free tests is ‘reckless’ at a time of surging infection rates and in the run-up to exams.
31 March 2022
Headteachers have criticised “confusing” new Government guidance issued to schools in England on how they should approach “living with Covid” from April 1.
Advice published by the Department for Education on Thursday confirmed that routine testing will no longer be expected, with an end to free lateral flow tests.
The guidance says that those who test positive for coronavirus should stay at home and avoid contact with others for five days, adding “for children and young people aged 18 and under, the advice will be three days”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this advice is “confusing” and that abandoning free testing in the run-up to exams “makes absolutely no sense at all”.
“It is frustrating and disappointing that the Department for Education has only now communicated its ‘Living with Covid’ plans to schools and colleges 24 hours before this significant change takes place,” he said.
“The advice itself confirms the scrapping of free Covid tests for almost all education settings, thus dispensing with one of the few remaining mitigations against transmission of the virus.
“This comes at a time when there are very high levels of staff and pupil absence in many schools and colleges caused by Covid.
“Abandoning free testing in this context, and with public exams looming, makes absolutely no sense at all.”
He added: “The guidance then goes on to advise that children who test positive after 1 April should isolate for three days. Not only is this confusing because free testing will have been withdrawn, but there is no explanation about the basis for this change to the isolation period.”
Mr Barton said the most likely outcome of the changes will be higher rates of transmission in schools and more disruption for pupils, including those taking exams.
“It’s a shambles,” he added.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said many headteachers will be “very worried” about the decision to relax measures further at a time when Covid cases are “rising rapidly” in schools.
“The Government’s own figures show that absences due to Covid are back up to the levels we last saw in January and many schools are once again struggling to keep classes open,” he said.
The latest Government data shows that, in total, 201,600 pupils were off school in England on March 17 for Covid-related reasons, up from 58,000 on March 3.
An estimated 9.1% of teachers and school leaders were absent on March 17, up from 5.8% on March 3.
Mr Whiteman said that removing access to free testing seems to be “nothing short of reckless” given the current situation, as testing was “one of the few tools schools have left” to reduce transmission rates.
“School leaders, staff and families will quite rightly want to understand the scientific evidence that justifies further reducing the isolation period for those that test positive for Covid,” he said.
“The immediate concern is that, by letting people who could still be contagious return to school too early, we could see an increase in cases and therefore more, rather than less, disruption.
“If the medical advice has changed, then Government has a duty to explain that to schools.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We are now moving to living with – and managing – the virus, while maintaining the population’s wall of protection and communicating safer behaviours that the public can follow to manage risk.”