Schools facing ‘unprecedented situation’ over mass testing, academy chief warns
- Credit: IAN BURT
A Norfolk schools trust chief has said headteachers are facing an “unprecedented situation” as they face a race to introduce mass testing to allow the delayed return of students.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said he is "absolutely confident" there will be no further delays to schools reopening, after soaring coronavirus case rates in December forced the Government into a U-turn in pushing back the start of terms for pupils.
Students in exam years will return a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students will not return until January 18.
Norfolk and Suffolk primary schools will return on January 4 as planned.
Andy Johnson, executive head of West Norfolk Academies Trust, which includes four high schools, said the announcement, less than a week before the planned restart date, had left leaders analysing how to move forward into January.
“It would always be helpful to know in advance but I think the government has been trying to weigh up two very difficult things to keep things as open as possible, and balance that up against not overwhelming the NHS,” he told Radio Norfolk.
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“It’s a difficult one but the more we know, the earlier we know, the greater clarity we have on a situation, the easier it becomes but we’ve just got to get on with this now, and make January happen.”
The trust's schools, including Springwood High in King’s Lynn and Marshland High School at West Walton, saw the autumn term disrupted due to cases of coronavirus.
Mr Johnson said: “I’ve been in a school where we’ve had hundreds of children sent home and that is quite a challenge but we’ve got better at that and we have learnt from that.
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“Delivering online learning has been a new experience for all of us but we are just trying to do our best in a difficult set of circumstances.”
In a series of interviews to reassure teaching staff, pupils and parents the newly rescheduled staggered return dates would remain in place, Mr Williamson said: “You're going to see over 85pc of primary schools returning on Monday morning, you're going to be seeing exam cohorts going back right across the country on January 11."
He said £78 million of additional funding, personal protective equipment and support from the military would help get mass testing programmes set up.
However the start of the new term has been described as a "last-minute mess" by teaching unions, who have cast doubt on whether schools will be ready.
Former Suffolk head Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL head teachers' union, said: "It is asking them to recruit and train large numbers of staff, and set up testing centres in an incredibly short timeframe.
"The support it has announced is nowhere near being sufficient.
"Ministers need to remember that schools and colleges are educational institutions, not medical facilities, and it has to support this testing programme properly."
Labour’s lead for children and young people on Norfolk County Council, Mike Smith-Clare, who is also a teacher, and in 2017 received an MBE for his work within education, said: “I’m sick of our profession being used as pawns in a game of chess - by a government unfit to play draughts.
“We are not scapegoats nor sacrificial lambs. We must not be held to emotional ransom by hypocrites - nor can we blindly accept a skewed science blinded by finance, rather than health.
“We must continue to fight for our children’s education, their well being and future. But our priority must always be their safety.”
Mr Johnson said the situation had impacted on pupil’s mental health and schools were “trying to keep morale up”.
School return delay latest U-turn
The announcement of a delay to pupils in England returning to their classrooms after Christmas is the latest in a string of U-turns performed by education secretary Gavin Williamson since the pandemic began.
The first primary school return - Following the first national lockdown, Mr Williamson set out ambitions in early May that all primary-age children would return to school for at least four weeks before the summer break. But on June 9, he said there was "no choice" but to scrap those plans amid concerns that the two-metre social-distancing rule would make a full return impossible.
School meals voucher scheme - Following pressure from a campaign headed by England footballer Marcus Rashford, the Government reversed its decision not to extend the children's food voucher scheme into the summer holidays.
School face coverings - The policy that children should not be required to wear face coverings while in school was reversed by the Department for Education in August. Mr Williamson had insisted previously that the Covid-secure measures being adopted in schools meant that the wearing of face coverings would not be necessary.
A-level and GCSE results - Following a backlash over downgraded results, the Government announced A-level and GCSE grades would be based on teachers' assessments rather than a controversial algorithm devised by regulator Ofqual. The announcement on August 17, just days before GCSE results were due to come out, followed an earlier vow from Mr Williamson that there would be "no U-turn, no change".