Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, said it was ‘simply not in children’s best interests’ for schools to close © Hannah McKay/Reuters

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All secondary school pupils and teachers in England will be tested for coronavirus from January as tensions flare again over how to manage the potential for children to spread Covid-19.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson on Tuesday declared a “milestone moment” as he announced secondary schools would be given rapid lateral flow tests to be carried out weekly for all staff, and daily tests for all close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

The move came in the midst of a legal dispute between Mr Williamson and London’s Greenwich council after the government forced schools in the borough to stay open amid escalating coronavirus cases.

But the mass testing announcement did little to assuage teachers’ anger. They accused the Department for Education of taking a heavy-handed management approach while offering little support. 

Teacher unions said the government had failed to consult adequately with unions and schools and argued the proposal that school staff carried out millions of tests was “deeply flawed”.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary for the National Education Union, said the testing announcement suggested the government had “learned nothing from the mishandling of every other aspect” of its response to Covid-19 in education.

“This announcement gives almost zero notice for unions to assess the plans, or for schools to implement them,” he added. “Schools would return in January unprepared in reality and with a significant build-up of cases from the Christmas relaxation.”

Greenwich was one of three London councils that advised schools to move to online learning before the Christmas break, but it backtracked on Tuesday after Mr Williamson issued a temporary continuation order demanding it replace the guidance with a “schools opening requirement”.

Council leader Danny Thorpe wrote that, with Covid-19 cases increasing by 49 per cent in the borough compared with the previous week, he did not agree with the directive. But he said he had “no choice” but to comply because he could not “justify the use of public funds to fight the decision”.

He also said that all school children and families across the borough would be immediately allowed to access asymptomatic testing for Covid-19, following a rollout of testing for secondary school students in some areas of north London, Essex and Kent.

London mayor Sadiq Khan on Monday urged the government to close schools until January.

Two other London boroughs, Islington and Waltham Forest, followed Greenwich in advising schools to move to remote learning. Schools minister Nick Gibb wrote to head teachers in the boroughs on Tuesday saying there was "no place in this pandemic for unilateral action" and that the DfE would "consider" using powers to "require schools to enable all pupils to attend full time".

Despite an official directive that schools and colleges stay open, many have taken the decision to close in response to high Covid-19 rates.

Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis academies, said that even when schools were open a large number of children were at home. Thousands of children in the 31,000-pupil academy chain were sent home this week, he said, and in some schools all but one or two year groups were learning remotely.

“The truth that the secretary of state has not taken on board is that schools are being shut all the time because they’ve reached the state where they cannot stay open,” Mr Chalke said.

Geoff Barton, the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the U-turn by Greenwich as a “hollow victory” for the government, and said concern over rising Covid-19 rates and pending Christmas travel meant many parents would keep their children at home anyway.

Both the ASCL and NEU have called for a more “nuanced” approach to school openings, allowing headteachers to make decisions about keeping schools open based on local infection rates.

This piece has been amended to show that weekly testing will be for all school staff in January.

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