Headteachers and school governors have written a strongly-worded letter to the prime minister “imploring” him to take personal charge of the crisis in Covid testing, warning that children’s return to education is being put at risk by failures in the system.
In an unusual move that marks the urgency of the situation, the three organisations that represent school leadership in England leapfrogged the Department for Education and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to make a direct appeal to Boris Johnson to intervene.
As reports continued to mount of parents of symptomatic children and teachers struggling to access tests, one union leader warned that the lack of availability could lead to a “lockdown by default”, with thousands of pupils and staff sent home to self-isolate for a fortnight, leading to widespread staffing problems and closures.
The National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Governance Association told the prime minister they felt “compelled” to express their “mounting concern” about the difficulties staff and pupils were facing in obtaining tests.
The two unions said they had received about 600 emails from members over four school days, with almost all reporting symptomatic staff and/or pupils who were struggling to access tests, with many complaining of problems contacting local public health teams.
“Test delays cause further disruption to children’s education following the lockdown since March, and put pressure on staffing cover in schools and colleges,” the letter said. “We are also receiving reports of difficulties in obtaining timely advice from local health protection teams when there are positive cases.
“Schools are left in a position of either leaving close contacts of the infected person in school while they wait for guidance, or making a public health call themselves and deciding on who to send home. This places leaders in an impossible situation.”
The letter said there was a “deep sense of foreboding” about the system becoming more riddled with delays as more cases emerge. “This would be increasingly disruptive to children’s education and make staffing unsustainable.
“Schools and colleges are frustrated that having spent the summer painstakingly putting in place safety measures to enable reopening, they are immediately encountering a lack of testing and public health capacity. They feel the government should have foreseen the likely demand on the system, and ensured that it was able to cope.”
One of the signatories to the letter, the ASCL general secretary, Geoff Barton, told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 that headteachers were being forced to decide that the “bubble has to stay at home” if a pupil or teacher in a year group had shown Covid-19 symptoms and could not get a test to prove they were negative. Protective bubbles in secondary schools can contain hundreds of pupils in a year group, who can be affected by one sick pupil.
“This will feel I think like lockdown by default – it will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it is going to happen.”
Barton also quoted from a headteacher who had emailed him overnight to say they felt “hoodwinked” by the government.
He summarised the email: “I feel that everything we put in place – the one-way systems, the bubbles and all of that, we have done – but now we are being tripped up by the fact that, whether it’s a child or a member of staff, they simply can’t get a test and it’s leaving us in a position of me not knowing whether I can staff some of those lessons tomorrow, or indeed for the next two weeks. It’s infuriating.”