National Education Union Says Headteachers Have Been "Very Badly Treated" As They Take On Test And Trace Responsibilities
Relations between the UK's largest teaching union and government have worsened in the run up to Christmas as the strain of supporting track and trace and preparing to roll out mass testing in January puts headteachers under strain.
The National Education Union, which has 450,000 members, has told PoliticsHome that senior school staff have been badly treated as they take on significant coronavirus testing duties on behalf of the government.
Some teachers must work until December 23, tracking and tracing pupils who have positive Covid-19 results. This is six days into their usual Christmas holiday, though the government gave schools an inset day on Friday December 18 to use for this purpose, so that they did not need to work on Christmas Eve.
Headteachers are also responsible for running rapid mass testing in schools from January 4, which involves training school staff before the Christmas break.
The significant demands on headteachers and their senior leadership teams are concerning, Kevin Courtney, the NEU's joint general secretary, told PoliticsHome, suggesting the decision by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to legally order schools in Greenwich to reopen despite their fears of rising cases, risked seriously undermining relations.
He said: "The government is running enormous risks, absolutely enormous risks, with the willingness of headteachers and other staff to work with them because headteachers have to do six days of the holiday on test, track and trace for [them].
“Headteachers have been very badly treated and the government using these legal methods, is just adding to the feeling that they are not supported by government.”
Courtney said the tests will be self-administered by the pupils, but the process needs overseeing by a team of staff.
He said this will likely involve the training up of existing support staff, if there is not a designated medical staff member on site, which could take away from people's normal duties and lead to a need to back-fill roles. Classroom teachers are very unlikely to be involved in overseeing the children taking the tests.
The Department for Education only issued the 'Schools and Colleges Testing Handbook' today, Tuesday December 15, with more training given in January. Pupils and staff will be tested once a week using 30 minute lateral flow tests. Any close contacts of someone with a positive result must undergo 'serial testing' where they are tested everyday for seven days. If they then get a positive result they are sent home to isolate, but not until that point.
Schools might need a staff of up to nine to test 100 pupils in three hour blocks, according to the DfE handbook. They will need a team leader, test assistant, processor, Covid-19 coordinator, registration assistant, results recorder and cleaner - though people can double up on the roles.
The swabbing and processing of the tests will be done at a dedicated site at the school either by a trained person or if it is a self-test, then with supervision, according to the handbook. The DfE guidance suggested schools might want to ask volunteers, or if they have to take on temporary staff for the job they will be reimbursed.
Courtney said it would be far more sensible to do online learning for the first week of January as just eight days prior to the January 4 return to school, pupils may have been mixing with up to two other households. An extra week of social distancing could bring numbers to a more manageable level, he suggested.
And online learning at the end of term would have meant teachers would not have to work on test and trace during the holidays, he said.
"Schools [would] have prepared materials for those weeks. Then you will be guaranteed to have much lower cases in January," he said.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "This huge expansion of rapid testing for those working in education is a milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all.
"I know it has taken a phenomenal effort from everyone to ensure approximately 99 percent of schools have been open each week since the start of term.
"Testing on this scale brings real benefits to education, it means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their classes in schools and colleges without the need to self-isolate."
On the legal directive ordering the Royal Borough of Greenwich schools to reopen for the final days of term - which the local authority said they accepted reluctantly - he said: "Children’s education is a national priority and this government has acted in the interest of children since the start of the pandemic."