Secondary schools to extend Christmas holidays by a week to enable rollout of mass testing


The return to school will be delayed by up to a week, ministers have announced, with headteachers told to recruit an army of parents and volunteers to carry out mass testing of teenagers.

Most secondary students will not be back in the classroom until January 11, a full week after the official start of term, and will instead be taught remotely.

Pupils Year 11 and Year 13 who are preparing for their GCSE and A-levels will be allowed to come back to school on January 4 along with anyone taking vocational qualifications that week, the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters.

But all other secondary pupils will only be allowed to come into school during the first week of term to take Covid-19 tests as part of a mass roll-out around the country.

The move comes amid warnings that the relaxation of social distancing rules for five days over Christmas will lead to a spike in coronavirus infections and deaths.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.

“Over the rest of the academic year and in the run up to exams, it will remain a national priority to keep education open for all, while keeping schools as safe as possible.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has told schools that they will need to use their own staff as well as recruit volunteers and parents to administer the tests. The military will assist with planning, officials said, and a formal request for assistance from the armed forces is expected to be made next week.

But the plans were threatened last night after the UK’s largest teacher union said it could not support the plans until the Education Secretary answered a list of questions.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union said that the mass testing plans are “inoperable”, adding that  it is “ridiculous” and “unreasonable” to expect teachers to cooperate with plans to recruit volunteers on the final day of term.

He also cast doubt over the accuracy of the lateral flow tests, pointing to findings published in the British Medical Journal that half of positive cases are missed if they are not done by trained medical personnel.

Headteachers said it “beggars belief” that ministers are now announcing a week delay to the start of term, having threatened councils with legal action this week for proposing a move to remote learning for the final few days before the holidays.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, the largest union for secondary headteachers, said that while she supports the principle of mass testing, the roll out itself will be an "enormous logistical challenge" for schools. She said that school staff could help with registering pupils and recording results but it is “not appropriate” for teachers to administer the tests.

“The roles that are more to do with administering medical procedures feel to us much more problematic, that is not what school staff are trained to do,” she said.

Lateral flow tests, which give results in 30 minutes, will be used, and testing kits will be sent out to schools ready for the start of term.

Each student will be given two rapid antigen tests, three days apart, and if either test shows a positive result a second sample will be sent to a laboratory for confirmation. Students who decline to have tests will still be allowed to go to school.

There are more than 4.2 million children in secondary schools, sixth-form colleges, special schools and alternative provision who will be given access to tests during the initial roll out from January 4.

The latest Government figures show 2.4 million tests being carried out in the past seven days, suggesting it would not be possible to test all children without a significant increase in testing.

Tests will be made available to the 5.2 million pupils in private schools and primaries later on during the Spring term.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said: “Rapid testing is a reliable and effective way to identify people without symptoms that we otherwise wouldn’t know about. By doing this we can help schools and colleges open safely after the Christmas break and ensure there is minimal disruption to our children’s education.”