Unions criticise English schools ‘more normal year’ campaign as naive

As students are urged to have twice-weekly Covid tests, unions say further measures are needed to reassure parents

A new government campaign urging students in England to have twice-weekly Covid tests for “a more normal year” at school and college has been labelled as naive by school union leaders.

The campaign includes an Olympic gold medallist, the 18-year-old swimmer Matt Richards, telling students that regular testing allowed him to compete at Tokyo and will allow them to “get back to the things you love, like competitive sports and school matches”.

The campaign on social and digital media and radio comes as schools and colleges in England reopen for the autumn term.

Matt Richards
The campaign features the Olympic champion swimmer Matt Richards. Photograph: Polly Thomas/Getty Images

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said students could “look forward to a more normal year” when they return. The government has dropped most of the restrictions imposed last year such as bubbles, social distancing and masks.

But Nick Brook, the deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It would be naive to assume that things will be completely back to normal in September. Scientists are already predicting that Covid cases are likely to increase further when schools reopen and sadly we know that further disruption is inevitable.”

Brook said a functioning test-and-trace system was needed to reassure parents, as well as ensuring effective responses in the event of outbreaks and improving classroom ventilation.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are hoping for the best over the course of the next term and beyond but there is clearly still a lot of uncertainty about the possible impact of Covid transmission among pupils who are largely unvaccinated.”

The government’s campaign will emphasise that testing is voluntary, but that students should continue using the lateral flow tests provided through their schools “to help uncover hidden cases of the virus at the start of term”, according to Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency.

The Department for Education (DfE) is preparing to tackle parents and children reluctant to return to school by recruiting teams of “attendance advisers” on short-term contracts worth £25,000.

The contracts, which were first advertised this week, are to start in November, and the advisers will guide local authorities on measures to meet the DfE’s priority “to reduce overall school absence as we recover from the pandemic”.

The DfE said: “A small team of attendance advisers are being recruited to work with local authorities and multi-academy trusts to provide advice, guidance and support on attendance where absence rates are higher than average.”

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