Last-minute plans to give secondary pupils a staggered return to school in January were today branded an ‘absolute shambles’ by union leaders.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to announce this afternoon that some students will spend the first week of the new term learning remotely.
This will enable schools and colleges to prepare for the mass roll-out of lateral flow testing.
Year 11 and Year 13 students – those in their final year of GCSE and A-level courses – will return as normal on January 4. Primary and special school pupils, along with vulnerable students and those from key worker families, will also go back to class on this date.
But other secondary school year groups are expected to have a phased return up until January 11.
It follows warnings that the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas is likely to lead to a surge in infections.
The Government intends to introduce weekly rapid testing of staff in high schools from early January.
And any secondary student who has been in contact with a positive case will also be offered seven days of daily testing. Providing they test negative, they won’t be sent home to self-isolate.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council has already trained staff from at least 10 city schools to deliver their own lateral flow tests.
But teaching unions said today’s announcement over the phased return had created even more confusion. And they claimed many schools across the country would struggle to find an ‘army of volunteers’ to carry out the testing.
Paul Whiteman, generation secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said: “By dropping this on schools minutes before the end of term, leaders are left with no time to implement Government’s instructions.
“Schools, pupils and parents are now left with no clear idea of what is expected of them, or what to expect next term.
“Primary schools appear to have been completely ignored in this announcement. School staff and parents of younger children are rightly worried about transmission of the virus over Christmas and will struggle to understand why they are being treated differently.
“Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail. It is now urgent that the Government confirms to schools the precise levels of support available to them to carry out testing.”
The NASUWT in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent also raised concerns about the lack of notice for schools.
An NASUWT spokesman said: “Delaying the return of some pupils in secondary schools by a week may be of some assistance, but much more action is needed to keep pupils, staff and their families safe.
“The failure of the Government to recognise the very real coronavirus risks impacting on primary and special schools is a major cause for concern.
“Yet again, the Government is announcing significant changes affecting schools, with little or no time to prepare before the Christmas closure period.
“The NASUWT has been clear that it is not the responsibility of teachers or school leaders to undertake testing of pupils or employees. The Government has to ensure that it puts into place all the necessary resources needed to deliver the practical and financial support to schools.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The start of the term won’t be delayed, but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return, supported by full-time education during the first week of term.”