Planning for mass testing in schools in 2021: HMC Chair Sally-Anne Huang responds

On Wednesday, I reached the end of a long, arduous but singularly rewarding term.  I was convinced that I had tied up loose ends and written all of my letters to colleagues and parents.  Of course, I was neglecting the new holiday tradition of the DfE COVID announcements that now come out before the end of every term.  And this term’s were especially challenging, in that they suggested that schools would become mass testing centres and also that the start of term would be delayed and offered remotely.

As a Headteacher, I do welcome the provision of more tests for pupils and staff in schools. I hope that the result of this will be to keep more pupils in the classroom and to help my community feel safer.  I also have sympathy for those in government who have to face unprecedented challenges on a daily basis and to develop new policies and strategies in days rather than the months normally afforded to them.

However, it’s the logistics, not the principle, that poses the greatest challenge here.  The timing of these announcements render them almost impossible.  Schools have already re-written timetables and re-deployed spaces to cope with the ‘bubbling’ of year groups.  Staff have already taken on extra work in terms of remote or hybrid teaching, developing classroom skills that allow for social distancing, and supporting all the extra cleaning, communications and pastoral issues that have inevitably arisen in the pandemic.  Therefore, I’m not entirely sure that these new proposals can ever happen in many settings, however much good will is in supply.  We are just running out of resources by every definition of that word.

Teachers will always catch a falling ball if they think it’s in the interests of their pupils, and they have been doing this since March.  But it’s been a bit like boiling a frog in that, in 2020, there have been so many to catch that we’ve almost stopped questioning them.  In particular, we have covered for huge amounts of track and trace work with minimal support and, with this latest announcement, how much more important tracking work will be generated?  Are we not becoming health centres by default?  If that’s what we need to be, then let’s at least say so directly.

One of the issues that has always been a problem for me is that those making decisions about schools, whatever their background or political stripes, are very rarely, if ever, in schools when those decisions are made.  Normally, this can take the form of high-level academic theory being hard to apply practically, or educational leaders using experience of their own school days, usually decades in the past, to make judgements for today.  But, of course, today that’s taken to the furthest extreme, in that no one can come into our schools – we are literally cut off from the rest of society and, in many ways, from each other.

This is apparent when considering the government’s latest proposals, which provoke a multitude of questions from anyone tasked with delivering them.  For example, the guidance suggests nine staff should be involved, something which is virtually impossible to find, even for independent schools. It is impossible to get the DBS checks done at this notice and, without a DBS, teachers would be required to supervise and therefore would not be teaching. Heads are running track and trace until late December so have little capacity, and the January mock exams also seem to have been forgotten.

When I made my speech to the HMC Conference back in October, I said that no one can know what it’s like to run a school in a pandemic, unless they have run a school in a pandemic.  That’s more true now than ever.  I would really welcome a system, not just now but in the future, that puts practising heads, from all sectors, right at the heart of decision making.  And, right now, gives us a voice which describes exactly what it’s like in schools – what more we would like to do for our pupils and our wider community, where the stresses and strains have been worse and, frankly, what might not be possible.  Above all, I just want to reach out to all other headteachers, thank them for all they are doing and hope, beyond all else, that they get some rest this Christmas.