Covid: 78% of headteachers say testing will take time away from teaching

Just three days before the full reopening of schools in England and already the ‘big bang’ return is giving some headteachers a thumping headache.

Exclusive polling for ITV News of more than 200 schools has revealed the strain mass testing of students is placing on the sector.

The survey, conducted by the schools network Worth Less, found 78% of headteachers expect to sacrifice significant teaching time in order to carry out the tests, with staff and resources diverted to the task. And only 41% of schools thought the lateral flow tests would keep them safe.

From Monday, all secondary students in England must be tested three times at school in the first two weeks of their return, plus once at home. Following that, they’ll have to test themselves at home twice a week for the foreseeable future.

In Southend, the local council has preempted the pressure on schools by setting up a dedicated testing centre for students at a local leisure centre.

Shifting the strain from the school hall to the sports hall, they’re due to test 15,000 students three times each – a task many teachers had been dreading.

Jason Carey, headteacher at Southend High school for girls, told ITV News: “There would have been at least a week or two of disruption.

"We would have done it but it would have meant every day for a week or so that lessons would be interrupted, as pupils would have been having their tests and then going back to lessons.”

  • Headteacher Jason Carey says testing could lead to teaching disruption

We filmed Olivia Traynor getting her test at the centre ahead of going back to class next week, with many schools trying to get the testing done before students are due to return.

She told us: “I’m probably the most excited I’ve ever been to go to school ever.

“I’m a really sociable person, so the social aspect is really important to me. This is definitely a push in the right direction.”

  • 'I'm the most excited I've ever been to go back to school', says Olivia Traynor

For other schools, the first challenge has been getting consent from parents for testing to take place.

Only 9% of schools said they had near complete consent - above 95% of parents allowing their child to be tested.

Only 40% of schools had consent rates above 85%, while a significant number of schools are struggling to even get half of parents to consent.

In Halifax, headteacher Matt Perry has managed to get just 27% of parents to give their consent so far. He told us: “Some didn't want their child being tested, it's as simple as that.

"Some didn't trust the efficacy of the lateral flow device testing and they said 'look, this doesn't give us any information, what's the point?'

"And some were mistrusting of the government and also couldn't afford to isolate should it be a positive test."

  • Just 27% of parents have signed up their kids for Covid testing, says headteacher Matt Perry

Without the consent of all parents, the testing regime risks being undermined, providing only partial reassurance that Covid-19 is not circulating among the students.

An overwhelming majority of schools – 80% - told us that testing should have been made compulsory by the government, allowing parents to opt out rather than opt in.

MP Siobhain McDonagh, who has been arguing in Parliament for this, told ITV News: “Considering the pressure they are under, it’s no surprise that 80% of schools think that testing should have been ‘opt out’ rather than ‘opt in’.

"More pupils would be tested, parents could still choose, and families would be safer.

“I’ve heard from schools still missing consent from almost half of parents and they are now calling them one by one in a race against the clock.

"We can all see this problem on the horizon, so why isn’t the government acting now before it becomes a far bigger problem on Monday?”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The rapid asymptomatic testing programme for education has been set up to support the return of all students to nurseries, schools and colleges.

“All staff, secondary and college students, their families and the families of primary school children will have access to twice-weekly testing as an additional reassurance on top of the strengthened safety measures in place from March 8.

“We encourage everyone to consent to testing, following in the footsteps of the staff and students who have already taken millions of tests over the past weeks while schools have been open only to critical worker and vulnerable children.”

In recent weeks there has been reassuring evidence that schools – and in particular teachers – do not face a greater risk of Covid-19.

Testing is now underway at schools across England. Credit: ITV News

Yet scientists anticipate the school return in England will increase the R number, possibly above 1.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have chosen a staggered approach to the school return, with the youngest pupils going back first.

But in England, Monday’s big bang return in England will see 10 million students, teachers and staff begin to mix again once more – a fifth of England’s population.

While an end to home schooling will undoubtedly bring much relief, it won’t be without risk.