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Pupils off in four out of five schools in England waiting for Covid tests

More than four out of five schools in England have pupils stuck at home because they cannot get access to Covid-19 tests, according to a survey of headteachers.

Meanwhile it emerged that Eton, where the prime minister studied, had used a private provider to test all of its staff and students as they returned to school in September.

The National Association of Head Teachers said the government had “failed schools and children” after receiving reports from more than 700 of its members that 82% had pupils absent because of a lack of testing, and 86% had pupils at home waiting for their results.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We are hearing the same thing repeatedly from our members across the country – chaos is being caused by the inability of staff and families to successfully get tested when they display symptoms.

“This means schools are struggling with staffing, have children missing school, and ultimately that children’s education is being needlessly disrupted.”

Nearly half of the headteachers contacted said they had staff off seeking a test, and 60% had staff waiting for test results to come back. More than one in six school leaders said they had had a confirmed case of Covid-19 infection among their pupils since the start of term this month.

Whiteman said: “It is in no way unpredictable or surprising that the demand for Covid-19 tests would spike when schools reopened more widely this term. And yet the system is in chaos. The government has failed schools and children.”

Asked about its private tests, Eton said it had acted on the advice of health professionals. In a statement, the Berkshire fee-paying school said: “Eton took the decision to test all pupils and staff for Covid-19 on their return to school, having carefully assessed the risks of transmission within our specific boarding context. In deciding to test, Eton has been determined not to put additional pressure on the NHS. Therefore, a contract has been taken out with a private provider and the school is covering all costs.”

To relieve pressure on the testing programme, members of the government’s Sage group of scientific advisers have recommended that a national two-week lockdown could be imposed in October to coincide with schools’ half-term holidays, according to a report in the Financial Times.

“As schools will be closed for one week at half-term, adding an extra week to that will have limited impact on education,” one of Sage’s members said.

UK coronavirus cases

After protests from schools, the Department for Education has set up a response hotline for headteachers to call in the event of outbreaks rather than relying on Public Health England’s local teams.

The DfE has also announced it will provide extra home-testing kits for schools after heads complained the initial supply of 10 kits was inadequate. Schools can now order 10 tests for every 1,000 pupils on roll, but only three weeks after their previous order was accepted.

On Thursday, Dido Harding, the head of the NHS’s test and trace programme, told MPs: “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase” in the demand for testing after pupils returned after the summer holidays.

School leaders say they were repeatedly assured by the government that testing would be in place for schools reopening, as a key safety requirement to enable children and teachers to return.

A coalition of school leaders – including the NAHT, the Association of School and College Leaders and the national school governors’ association – wrote to Boris Johnson this week, imploring him to take personal responsibility for the lack of testing and slow results hampering schools.

A government spokesperson said official statistics showed 99.9% of schools were open with the vast majority of pupils attending.

“Where staff or children have symptoms of Covid-19, testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, and we are working to provide further priority access for teachers.

“Schools only need to identify close contacts and ask them to self-isolate if and when a case is confirmed from a positive test result,” the spokesperson said.

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