The leaders of Britain’s largest education union have today written to the Prime Minister urging Government to take emergency measures if schools and colleges are to keep safe and open. 

As the testing regime buckles under the strain of demand, staff and pupils cannot get tested, or get results, and schools cannot deal with outbreaks or sustain full opening if people are unnecessarily isolating.

With lockdowns likely but further school closure ruled out by the Government, today’s letter calls for the testing regime to be significantly and urgently increased for schools. It also warns Boris Johnson he must not take the continued support of schools for granted. The letter asks for a Plan B for education “that is sustainable in the mid to long term, not just for tomorrow.”

“Time is running out and the Government must act now,” say Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union. The union is calling on Boris Johnson to take robust and urgent action to protect pupils, staff and their families.

The NEU’s letter also proposes “Nightingale Schools” to reduce transmission networks.

The letter, which was sent today and is signed by Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, reads as follows:

20 September 2020

Cc Secretary of State for Education

Dear Prime Minister

We are writing to you at a critical moment for our country, schools and young people.

It is now clear that your Government has not managed to ensure that testing is sufficiently available to meet the predictable need when 12 million children and their staff returned to school in England.   

Gavin Williamson wrote to heads on 7 September, saying: “I want to reassure you again that all your staff and pupils have access to testing if one of them should develop Covid-19 symptoms.”

But we know this promise was being broken, even as it was being sent.

This failure on testing is causing three related problems:

  • Schools do not have the information to act quickly to stop viral spread when children who would be positive can’t get a test. 
  • Many children are out of school who would be negative if tested, but cannot get a test.
  • Many school staff are also at home waiting for a test which may well be negative.

This is putting a strain on schools, which will only get worse the further we get into the autumn term.

The situation needs addressing as a matter of urgency. Children and staff should be a high priority for the testing regime. Indeed, you should move towards asymptomatic testing of staff and older pupils as you have done in the NHS and care homes.

It is also clear that cases are growing rapidly, with many sources suggesting an 8-day doubling time, which will return us to March levels within a few weeks if urgent action is not taken. The situation is markedly worse in some localities and we and our members are disturbed that 44 districts are now on your intervention list.

We hope that you will be able to get this situation under control quickly but, if you cannot, then we believe that you will have to take steps to reduce wider school opening in these areas to help get R below 1.

You have outlined your plans for such reductions, but we believe you should be undertaking urgent preparations now for Plan B:

  • Reduction of class sizes, the highest in Europe, to reduce the size of transmission networks and avoid rota operation wherever possible. We need Nightingale Schools as well as Nightingale Hospitals and courts.
  • Delivery of broadband and laptops to children who still don’t have them.
  • Urgent clarity and realism on exams and tests for next year. There needs to be fairness for children across the country who will miss varying amounts of schooling as a result of isolation and local lockdowns.   

School leaders, teachers and support staff have supported the wider opening for all pupils and worked hard to make it as safe as possible, but you cannot, and must not, take this support for granted.

You must show that the virus levels will be able to fall again and that you have a plan for education that is sustainable in the mid to long term, not just for tomorrow.

The issues raised in this letter are so serious and pressing that we are making its contents public.

Yours sincerely

Mary Bousted                                                                                      Kevin Courtney

Joint General Secretary                                                                     Joint General Secretary

ENDS

2020-159-NEU

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