So, having commissioned Sir Kevan Collins to report on the investment needed to (in their words) "catch-up" after the pandemic, the Treasury have refused to foot the bill of £15bn, instead stumping up less than 10% of what was asked for. That's just £6,000 a year for an average primary school.
Thursday, 3 June 2021
Wednesday, 2 June 2021
On BBC news this morning, hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed what was already clear to most educators - that he is "enthusiastic" about a permanent extension to the school day. This is a threat that must be taken seriously by the NEU, with plans being made now to oppose it with action if the Tories press ahead with this damaging proposal.
Child-care before genuine education
The Government determination to open schools as fully as possible over the last year, despite their role in transmitting Covid, has already made clear that Ministers, and their big business backers, see schooling as a child-care service as much as an educational one.
Of course, even the education they force on young people and schools is a narrow, 'exam factory' education dominated by high-stakes testing and league tables used to grade students, staff and schools in their corporate vision of an education marketplace. What parents and educators must demand is an end to the exam factory schooling, not making the production-line run for an even longer shift every day!
Williamson's comments came during an interview about the announcement of an extra £1.4 billion for what has been described as 'catch-up' tutoring. Of course, what many children needed to 'catch-up' on above all was a chance to play and interact with peers again, with a focus on their broader well-being and mental health, rather than just additional lesson content. However, even to meet that narrower goal, £1.4 billion works out at about £50 per pupil per year - far less than required to provide sufficient additional staffing, one-to-one and small group support (see update below).
But, instead of proper investment in education, this austerity-minded Government thinks it can do better, for cheaper, by simply extending the school day. In their minds, that means getting more for less out of their workforce and more time to 'fill' children with facts. It is also a regime designed to instil the mentality that they - and their parents - need to spend more time at work, and less time together.
The school day in England is already longer than the global average
Educationally, extending the school day won't help students learn. They, just like the staff teaching them, are exhausted enough at the end of the existing school day, let alone an extended one. Concentration will not be maintained.
I explained in March in a first post responding to Williamson's suggestion of longer schooling that pupils in England already spend longer in school than the global average.
|OECD (2014): How much time do students spend in the classroom?|
Excessive hours are already driving out too many school staff
School staff, of course, already work far too long as well. As budgets tighten further and posts are cut, remaining support staff are being bullied into taking on roles outside their job description and working additional unpaid overtime. As for teachers, even the Government's own figures show that they are already working over a 50 hour week.
Send a clear warning - we'll take action if you press ahead
The time at the end of the existing school day when ignorant Ministers like Williamson might think teachers are just heading home, is of course time when teachers are desperately trying to 'catch-up' on at least some of their planning and marking. If they now have to continue teaching for longer, that work will now take up even more of their evening and weekends than it does now.
Excessive workload is already the main reason why so many teachers leave the profession - a staggering third of new entrants within the first five years in the job. These plans will drive even more out of teaching - unless we organise to make sure the Tories' plans are dropped and, instead, action taken to reduce, not increase, workload.
Under current contracts with 1265 hours of 'directed time', school employers could not enforce a longer working day. However, the pressure on staff to do so, including the pressure from performance pay, will still be exerted in some schools. School groups will need to organise firmly to make sure workload isn't increased yet further through 'divide-and-rule' amongst staff.
If Williamson and Johnson press further with trying to impose additional working hours, such an attack could not be fought school-by-school alone. That's why all teacher unions must make firmly clear that any attempt to impose changed contracts will be strongly fought together.
What I posted in March is even more the case today - "Unions need to boldly respond with a clear warning that, if the Government tries to enforce worse conditions, we will organise national action to defend staff and education".
Read more on martin4dgs.co.uk
UPDATE: 'Recovery Commissioner' resigns - also posted separately here
Tuesday, 18 May 2021
In April, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that he wants all schools to become academies. While educators have rightly learned to treat Williamson’s ill-considered pronouncements with disdain, it was nevertheless a warning that this Government still plans to push further towards doing away entirely with any kind of democratic local control over education through elected Local Authorities.
A push for further academisation by Ministers risks more Governing Bodies wondering if they should ‘jump before they are pushed’ into joining a Multi Academy Trust, particularly if the Labour Party’s previously firmer opposition to academisation weakens under its new leadership.
Meanwhile, the legislation that forces unwanted academisation onto schools deemed to have been ‘failed’ by Ofsted will continue to do its damage. But the tenacious struggle by staff and parents at Moulsecoomb Primary in Brighton to defend their community status shows how firm opposition can – and must – be built and given our full support.
|Hands Off Moulsecoomb Primary School|
5 reasons to oppose an academy transfer:
1. Becoming an academy doesn’t improve educational attainment
The academisation of schools has been just one aspect of a global drive to break-up state education and impose an education market of competing chains of schools. In England, Ofsted, SATs and exam league tables have been the weapons used to unfairly grade and compare both schools and school students, creating a culture of ‘failure’, instead of genuine school improvement.
Aside from the right-wing ideologues that believe in the magical powers of the ‘market’, it will come as no surprise to most people that the research evidence has consistently shown that academisation does NOT result in improved educational attainment.
The results of a four-year evaluation published by researchers at the UCL Institute of Education in 2018 concluded that “there is no positive impact on the attainment and progress scores of pupils in MATs when compared to equivalent non-MAT schools”. It also noted that “pupils in larger MATs did worse, particularly in secondary schools”.
The research also pointed out the damaging effect of the marketisation of schools on education as a whole: “Schools are facing pressure to get good exam results and Ofsted grades, or face being taken over by a MAT. Many schools have felt the need to narrow their curriculum and focus relentlessly on test outcomes in response”.
Research from the Education Policy Institute has found similar findings. Their comparison of school performance across every trust and local authority in England in 2017 found “little difference in the performance of schools in academy chains and local authorities” overall.
The Education Policy Institute’s analysis of primary school results also noted that while “Local authorities make up 15 of the top 20 school groups at Key Stage 2 … academy chains are over-represented in the lowest performing groups”.
This mirrors the findings of the House of Commons Education Committee that “We have been unable to locate any evidence ... of a relationship between primary academy status and raised attainment”.
2. Academisation and the ‘market’ in education have increased inequality
Instead of encouraging genuine school improvement, through sharing of good practice, reduced workload, better training and support, and funding to meet needs, the marketisation of schools has done the opposite.
The pressure of league tables and Ofsted gradings has encouraged schools to ‘game the system’, changing their intake to improve results at the expense of their ‘competitors’, rather than genuinely improving education for all. Research has shown that Multi-Academy Trusts have particularly failed to meet the needs of disadvantaged pupils.
Fragmentation, and the undermining of national pay and conditions and facility time arrangements through academisation, has also increased inequality for staff as well.
The marketisation of education has to be reversed, including reversing academisation.
The authors of the 2018 UCL Institute of Education research spelt out what is happening:
“The system is hard-wired to encourage selfish behaviour, because the consequences for schools of a drop in exam scores or Ofsted grade can be so catastrophic. At present we see a chaotic system of winners and losers, with increasing incoherence and a loss of equity as a result”
"Lower-status schools frequently face a concentration of challenges including under-subscription, movement of pupils throughout the school year and disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged and hard to place children. These schools were also most likely to report a negative impact as a result of austerity cuts to wider local services for the most vulnerable children, previously provided by local authorities."
Research from the Sutton Trust concludes that “Two-thirds of academy chains perform below the national average for all state schools on key measures of attainment for disadvantaged young people. Improving their educational achievement was [supposedly - MPD!] the original reason why academies were set up. In this regard they have not succeeded”.
The British Journal of Sociology also found that academies are more likely than other schools to employ teachers who are unqualified. “The greatest increases are among those structured more like businesses — academies run by government-approved sponsors or belonging to a chain of schools”.
Pay inequality for staff working in academies is also consistently shown in the Government’s school workforce data. The latest Government report confirms that “Average salaries for classroom and other leadership teachers are higher on average in LA maintained schools than academies”. However, pay inequality is also greater within academies too. The school workforce report also notes that: “The average salary for headteachers is however, higher in academies than in LA maintained schools”.
Of course, MATs have not just been spending their budgets on increasing Headteacher pay. Schools Week have dubbed the extortionate top salaries in some MATs as an “emerging ‘super league’ of academy trust CEO pay”. Here is their “top ten”:
|Figures from Schools Week|
3. Becoming an academy will not protect your school from budget cuts
Just as in the NHS, imposing a market on schools was supposedly meant to improve ‘efficiency’. The lack of accountability that comes with privatisation instead risks spending being diverted to cronyism and pay rises for those at the top.
But, overall, the break-up of state education has been a mechanism to cheapen the cost of education, both by making it easier to cut the Local Authority services that schools used to be able to rely on, and by driving down staffing costs. That’s because the fragmentation of education into so many different employers has helped to weaken trade union organisation and to undermine nationally agreed pay and conditions.
While, in the initial drive to encourage academy transfers under Tony Blair, financial incentives were provided to encourage schools to convert, academisation is certainly no longer a way for governors to protect themselves from budget cuts. In fact, without the support of a Local Authority, an academy leaves itself more exposed. The most recent National Audit Office report into schools’ financial sustainability – last compiled in 2016 – confirmed that a greater proportion of academies were running annual deficits than local authority maintained schools:Criticism over the extent of “related-party transactions” being carried out by academies - payments to individuals or organisations with which senior staff have relationships – led to a tightening of Government regulations. But, without genuine democratic oversight, the issue is not going to go away.
For example, the TES reported on one expanding Multi Academy Trust based in Wakefield spending nearly £40,000 on related-party transactions in 2018/19 alone.
4. Being an academy doesn’t increase educational ‘freedom’
Academisation was sold to schools as a way of giving them ‘freedom’ from the ‘bureaucracy’ of a Local Authority. Certainly, when schools are returned to local democratic control, it must also be done in a way that ensures there is a genuine voice for schools, staff, parents, unions and the wider community. For example, the recent proposals from the Socialist Education Association call for an elected education committee or board.
In reality, academisation has provided no genuine ‘freedom’ at all. Instead it has allowed greater Government centralisation and the growth of unaccountable Multi Academy Trusts where parent, staff and student voices are rarely heard.
Once converted, schools become a commodity that can be transferred from one MAT business to another without their say.
Supporters of academisation continue to argue that MATs can just takeover the roles that Local Authorities used to provide, including the educational partnerships and collaboration needed for genuine school improvement.
But, as the 2020 UCL research quoted above puts it: “MATs are commonly referred to as a form of partnership, but we argue that this is inappropriate … We argue MATs are best understood in terms of ‘mergers and acquisitions’, with prescribed models of governance and leadership largely derived from the private and, to a lesser extent, voluntary sectors”.
Those models of governance leave key decisions in the hands of a small Trust Board. Individual school governing bodies within a Trust have little power, if, indeed, they are allowed to exist at all by the MAT.
As a 2019 House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report explained “Parents and local people have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools, and academy trusts do not do enough to communicate and explain decisions that affect the schools they are responsible for and how they are spending public money.”
But if parents and Governors want to change their mind and return to Local Authority maintained status, it’s too late. The current legislation means that a decision to become an academy is irreversible. What’s more, once that transfer has happened, the Government is entitled to then transfer a school to a new Trust, without any further say by staff, parents and Governors. Over a thousand academies have been ‘re-brokered’ to new trusts in the last five years.
And, of course, the tendency is towards ‘monopoly’ – with smaller MATs being taken over by a few larger corporate MATs who would then dominate public education without any real democratic oversight.
5. Schools will do far better in partnerships without becoming academies
The real solution to ending the chaotic and damaging fragmentation of state education in England is to return all schools to democratic local control. But, until then, remaining maintained schools need to resist the pressure to convert and develop their own school partnerships instead.
While educational research continues to show that the academisation is failing education, it also shows that what really works is genuine partnership between local schools within a Local Authority.
For example, the successful school improvement initiatives around the London Challenge from 2003-2011 were based on local support for teaching and learning, not academisation.
Some groups of schools are working well in partnerships as local authority schools.
For example, in response to Gavin Williamson’s announcement in April, Harry Kutty, Chair of the Aspire Community Trust, a group of maintained schools in Southampton, tweeted “It’s not all about MATs. It’s about collaboration, culture and a pursuit of the very best experience and outcomes for all. Suggesting that only MATs can create systems around these principles is simply not true”.
Of course, if Local Authority services and education budgets continue to be cut, then the resources needed to meet all students’ needs, and to develop genuine partnership and school improvement, will be even harder to find. That’s why, in opposing academisation, we also have to fight for education funding and oppose cuts to local authority services.
We must make clear that academisation doesn’t provide any way forward. In fact, it is part of a deliberate strategy to help governments drive down the costs of education. Instead, we have to organise to defend all schools fighting academisation and demand a return of all schools to democratic local control, funded to meet the needs of all.
You can download this post as a 4-page A4 leaflet here.
Tuesday, 27 April 2021
|Download this post as a Martin4DGS leaflet from here: https://bit.ly/3sZjTZs|
Excessive workload has long been the greatest concern for most NEU members. It’s the main reason why so many teachers leave the profession altogether every year, unable to put up any longer with 50+ hour weeks, lost weekends and evenings and the constant pressure from unreasonable demands and targets.
To make a difference to members’ lives, and to education overall, workload must therefore be central to the Union’s organising and negotiating strategy. A co-ordinated emphasis this term on working hours is a good place to start. However, a focus on teachers’ ‘Directed Time’ will only make quite limited gains. If we really want to tackle workload, a much wider strategy is needed.
A Directed Time campaign alone can only make limited gains
The Union is calling for all reps this term to bargain in their workplace to ensure a 1265 hours Directed Time calendar is in place for next year. To be precise, what’s really needed is a 1265-hour time budget plus a calendar which shows how directed meetings and events are set out over the year ahead. That way reps can also argue for the policy that used to be enforced by the legacy NUT ‘action short of strike action’ of “meetings outside session times should be held on average no more than once a week”.
As the Directed Time budget examples in the Union’s materials show, insisting on a maximum of 1265 directed hours can help ensure that staff meetings are limited to one a week, parents’ evenings limited in duration, and pupil supervision limited to the start and end of sessions, not over lunch break. It could also protect against the minority of schools trying to operate extended school days. But, while all organising gains are welcome, a focus on Directed Hours will not tackle the main workload burden. To do that, we must set the bar much higher.
Teachers’ existing contracts are too weak to enforce a limit on overall workload
Reps are being asked to use paragraphs 51 and 52 of most teachers’ national conditions - the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document – as a bargaining tool. However, any rep, or any employer, reading those contractual conditions will soon come across the sting in the tail, paragraph 51.7:
51.7 “In addition to [directed hours] a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties, including in particular planning and preparing courses and lessons; and assessing, monitoring, recording and reporting on the learning needs, progress and achievements of assigned pupils”.
In other words, beyond the word ‘reasonable’, limited PPA rights, and a reference in 52.4 to the need for a ‘satisfactory’ work/life balance, the STPCD sets no enforceable limit on the kind of work that mainly keeps teachers in school until late - and eats up their evenings and weekends too. Planning, preparation, assessment, grading, marking, recording, and reporting all lie outside ‘directed time’.
In short, the STPCD teachers’ contractual conditions are just too weak to be used as an effective bargaining tool. We will not solve the burden of teacher workload unless we mount a bargaining and negotiating strategy which seeks to puts a limit on overall working hours, not just directed time.
2021 Conference and Workload Charters
2021 NEU Annual Conference policy noted the disgraceful facts that:
• Teachers continue to work more hours per week than the Working Time Regulations maximum of 48 hours, with one study finding that 1 in 4 teachers works more than 60 hours a week;
• Higher class sizes and job losses, driven by school budget cuts, have further worsened workload for all staff.
• Support staff workload is also deteriorating with a “job creep” of additional demands being imposed on them on top of their existing duties.
• The government’s workplace reviews of planning, marking and data policies have made little, if any, significant impact;
• Excessive workload is the key contributor to significant rates of mental health issues among teachers and support staff, as well as the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention where one third of newly qualified teachers leave the profession within five years.
So, what needs to be done beyond bargaining for Directed Time? Conference agreed that the Union must “re-launch workload as a priority campaign for the Union” and also that the Union should “disseminate Workload charters currently in use and carry out an analysis into their effectiveness at reducing workload”.
Workload Charters, such as those negotiated with Local Authorities in Nottingham and Coventry, seek to put in place stronger workload limits than exist in the STPCD. For example, the Coventry charter calls for a review of planning, marking and data policies that then ensure that “for teachers, the workload requirements of all policies should be reasonably deliverable within an additional ten hours per week”. On top of directed hours, this could cut overall working time to closer to 40 hours.
Yes, the effectiveness of existing Charters, including how workplace organisation has helped ensure working hours have been limited in practice, needs to be reviewed. But this Conference policy, looking at an overall limit on working time, not just Directed Time, needs to be put into practice.
Win a new National Contract for all educators
There was one more key motion tabled on the Conference agenda that was sadly not reached. A motion that I had drafted, and I was due to propose before debating time ran out, set out a strategy to win a new National Contract for all staff.
I believe that a campaign for such a National Contract is the best way to win on workload – as well as on pay and conditions generally. Such a contract must also include agreed common national pay scales and an end to performance-related pay. But ending PRP is also a workload demand too. The threat of withholding pay progression, often based on imposed test and exam targets, is too often used to bully staff into working excessive hours.
Winning a new National Contract for all would mean that we no longer have to rely on the weak provisions in the STPCD for teachers. It would also overcome the fragmentation in national conditions for all staff brought about by academisation and increasing school-by-school discretion.
To end excessive teacher workload, I propose that our National Contract demands should include:
• A minimum 20% planning, preparation, and assessment time for all within the timetabled week.
• A minimum additional 10% release time for staff with additional duties e.g. subject leadership.
• A maximum limit on working hours over 195 working days.
• Trade-union negotiated policies that ensure teachers can complete their planning, preparation and assessment and other responsibilities within this limit.
But to make this possible, and to prevent workload just being transferred to other colleagues instead, we must also demand sufficient staffing to meet needs. By implication, we also need an end to the high stakes testing and accountability regime that lies behind so many of the demands on schools. We would also need a trade-union negotiated class size and staffing policy and negotiating structures between elected reps and management to be set up with every school and employer, backed up by strong NEU organisation, to ensure that the Contract is being fully complied with.
Don’t delay – implement a strategy to win
I believe that such a strategy could lift the sights of every educator, every NEU rep and Local Officer. It could bring the whole Union together around a campaign that would really make a difference to every NEU member. It would also allow us to explain to parents and the public our different vision to the current ‘exam factory’ curriculum – properly funded and without constant staff turnover.
Yes, as my proposed Conference Motion also stated, such a unified national campaign would also need unified national action to win it, including preparation for a national ballot for strike action. Ballots could also be counted by employer so that, alongside national negotiations, the Union can also pursue ‘disaggregated’ action to make gains on an employer-by-employer basis too.
Yes, any ballot also needs careful prior preparation - taking the campaign out to every member, using what we have learned from using online methods like Zoom, as well as the physical meetings and rallies. It also requires the ‘technical’ preparations of making sure we are ‘ballot ready’ to meet the legally imposed thresholds, with correct home addresses and mechanisms in place for reps to check members are returning their formal votes postally in as high a turnout as possible.
But it is not enough to simply call for a ‘National Contract’ as a slogan – then put off building for it to some unknown time in the future. That will leave more exhausted members quitting the job. It means continuing to expect individual reps to try and make the most of an unacceptably weak set of conditions, when what we need is for the Union to give a national lead and start organising across the whole Union for a National Contract for all.
The newly elected National Executive should start giving that lead by agreeing the Motion that was never reached at NEU Conference, and start work without delay on preparing to win a new National Contract for all staff.
That’s what I would be calling for, and organising for, as new Deputy General Secretary of the NEU.
Friday, 9 April 2021
NEU Conference 2021 has had to take place via Zoom, with delegates sitting at their own homes. Such a Conference has obviously not been without its glitches and idiosyncrasies but, in the end, managed to debate and agree a wide range of policy.
Disappointingly, one of the few motions that was never reached was a motion that I had hoped to propose on a “National Contract for Education”. Conference voted to close the debate before it was heard, even though there would have been time to debate it, and still leave time for another important unfinished motion on Pride in Our Union.
However, while the debate was not had at Annual Conference, it’s certainly a proposal that I want to continue to raise for discussion during the campaign for Deputy General Secretary.
As usual, our Annual Conference has agreed many good demands but the question for delegates as we draw Conference to a close is always the same – now, how do we achieve them? How can we defend pay, jobs and conditions? How can we get rid of SATs, Ofsted and League Tables for good - and build a curriculum based on equality and the real needs of children and our communities?
The last year of the pandemic has shown that lobbying alone will not succeed, especially now that the Labour Party front bench can no longer be relied on to support NEU policy as under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The successful use of Section 44 showed in January how we can win - by giving a clear national lead, calling on members to act together union-wide.
The Motion on the National Contract would have come at the end of a series of motions around pay, workload and conditions – but it was the motion that could have brought those together in one national strategy.
Because, while we can – and will – continue to win some gains at a school level, issues that affect every educator will need to be tackled by acting across employers – and across the whole Union. How do we do that?
We all know the organising watchwords we use when we train our reps – that our demands need to be “deeply felt and widely felt” if we are going to be able to act collectively. Now for some educators, their key grievance will be workload, for others pay, for others job losses and the lack of support for students. A campaign for a new ‘National Contract’ for all can bring together those key grievances into one unified campaign – and form the basis for such a unified national campaign of action.
The motion suggests a series of demands:
Firstly, to “Pay school staff properly” – linking the demands we agreed elsewhere in Conference, for significant pay awards for both teaching and support staff and for guaranteed pay progression, not PRP. The Contract must also include trade-union negotiated common pay scales – together with additional London and Fringe allowances – to replace the increasingly fractured pay scales across different employers.
Secondly “An end to excessive teacher workload” – to stop the burden of 50 hour working weeks and unpaid overtime driving staff out of the job through overwork. The Contract should add the long-standing demand for a minimum 20% PPA – plus additional time for those with additional responsibilities – so staff have time to prepare in the school day, not in their evenings, weekends and holidays. The contract must set a real limit to working hours. That doesn’t just mean limiting teachers’ “directed time” but an end to the open-ended wording in the STPCD that also asks for the “additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties”.
Thirdly “Sufficient Staff to meet needs” - a limit on hours will only be feasible if it is combined with expectations of work that can be achieved within that limit – for teachers and support staff. That means a Contract that also sets out a requirement for trade union negotiated policies, not least on assessment and planning. It also means making sure employers have class size limits and staffing structures that provide the support needed for students, rather than just having to fit to an inadequate school budget.
Fourthly, “Collective Bargaining and Accountability”- having used our workplace strength together to win national demands, then, in turn, we need to use that national strength to insist that every workplace, and every employer, has its own negotiating structures to resolve how our national contractual rights are applied locally, and to negotiate the individual issues that can arise in a particular sector or school.
Where we have national recognition, we should use the opportunity given to us already via the Review Body process to call for these demands as part of an overhaul of the STPCD – while also seeking direct negotiations and collective bargaining for all our members.
Of course, those overtures will be rejected by this hard-nosed Government – unless they are backed up by the threat of national action that would be required to win a national contract.
As the Motion proposed, however, ballots could also be counted by employer so that, alongside national negotiations, the Union can also pursue disaggregated action to make gains on an employer-by-employer basis.
Clearly, union-wide action needs careful preparation. That includes the ‘technical’ preparations of making sure we are ‘ballot ready’ to meet the legally imposed thresholds, with correct home addresses and setting up mechanisms for reps to check we are getting the vote back postally in as high a turnout as possible.
It needs the campaign preparation - taking the campaign out to every member, using what we have learned from using online methods like Zoom, as well as the physical meetings and rallies.
It also need taking out more widely to parents – to explain why a National Contract for staff is also a National Contract for Education – to stop the constant staff turnover, to limit class sizes and insist on sufficient staffing to improve the learning conditions for young people
But above all, pursuing this approach means we move from lowering members’ confidence by emphasising the barriers in our way – and instead start to raise members’ confidence by emphasising what needs to be done – and then works out soberly but with determination, how we’re going to do it.
The full wording of Motion 14 - including amendment 14.1 which, as proposer, I was accepting - can be found here.
Sunday, 21 March 2021
Otherwise, stress and uncertainty remain - from a lack of information from Exam Boards over this summer’s assessments, to a continued concern about levels of Covid transmission within schools.
Lateral Flow Testing was supposedly meant to help clarify the latter issue – at least in secondary schools. But the reality is that the lack of any genuine prior piloting of these devices in school settings means the school testing programme is being rolled out despite serious uncertainty about its likely effectiveness in identifying positive cases.
A quick comparison of two pieces of official statistical evidence released at the end of last week shows that something doesn’t add up.
On 19 March, the ONS produced the latest weekly results from their ongoing ‘Infection Survey’. Their modelling, based on PCR test sampling that will include both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases, shows a continued welcome decline in the percentage of the UK population testing positive.
In Wales and most English regions the estimated positivity rates are still falling. However, rates may be levelling out in Northern Ireland and northern regions of England. In Scotland, it appears positivity rates are starting to rise again. As Independent SAGE have pointed out, this may well be linked to rising case numbers amongst primary pupils since a phased primary school return began in Scotland on 22 February.
However, the data that I want to concentrate on here is the estimated positivity rate for young people in the secondary school age range. The ONS estimate, for England only, is a positivity rate of 0.3% or 1 in 333 testing positive.
Separately, on 18 March 2021, the Government released data on the results from Lateral Flow Devices (LFDs) in schools, and some other community settings, from 4 to 10 March.
The sharp increase in LFD Testing carried out on secondary school students after 8 March is shown in the following graphs from the LFD report:
The 18 March 2021 Report itself reports that the LFD data “should be treated with caution whilst the understanding of the data and its quality improves”. This is in part owing to the fact that individuals may report more than one test and that some results may not be reported – but there is a more concerning underlying issue and that is the reliability of the LFDs in comparison to PCR testing, particularly in a school setting.
Lateral Flow Devices are not reliable enough to be trusted with school safety
From the very outset last summer, when Ministers came up with their “Operation Moonshot” plan for mass testing, its own advisers in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned that “the cheaper, faster tests that will be useful for mass testing are likely to have lower ability to identify true positives (lower sensitivity) and true negatives (lower specificity) than the tests currently used”.
However, a clinical evaluation went ahead that claimed that “Lateral Flow Tests are accurate and sensitive enough to be used in the community, including for asymptomatic people”. However, a closer reading of the University of Oxford evaluation report shows that, while the Innova LFD test had a sensitivity of 79.2% (156/197) for all PCR positive individuals when used by laboratory scientists, this fell to 57.5% (214/372) when carried out by self-trained members of the public. This, of course, is how school staff have now been asked to conduct the testing.
A further two-week pilot of mass testing using the Innova devices was carried out in Liverpool. It only confirmed concerns over the accuracy of the Innova tests. A Liverpool University Report on the Pilot concluded that “the Innova SARS-CoV-2 antigen lateral flow device sensitivity was lower than expected (based on the preceding validation studies) at 40% but identified two thirds of cases with higher viral loads”.
This was confirmed to the Government in a paper presented to the 70th meeting of SAGE on 26 November 2020 that said “emerging evidence from Liverpool is that the lateral flow tests being used are not as sensitive as had been expected from the test validation”.
The data shows that LFDs are likely to miss a majority of positive cases in a school setting
The 40% sensitivity estimate – even lower than the sensitivity rates reported in the initial Oxford University clinical evaluation report - is explained below. Only 28 of the 70 cases detected by a PCR test were detected by the Innova Lateral Flow Test:
This second table shows how the majority of the cases that were not detected were for cases where the “Ct level” was high – or, in other words, where the “viral load” was low.
|Table 2: Comparison of LFT site results and PCR results, by Ct levels|
In short, the initial evaluations of the Innova tests in practice suggest that they will fail to find the majority of cases in our school students and that “false negatives” will be common.
Of course, as staff are already finding, explaining to a student who has been told they are “negative” that this may be a false reassurance - and that they need to maintain social distancing, mask-wearing and all the other necessary mitigations, becomes more difficult.
(The unreliability of the tests also means that there may also be “false positives”, which could lead to children isolating without good reason, as explained in other articles).
So where are the scientific studies into the use of Innova tests in schools?
So, could the discrepancy between the ONS modelling (6 in 2000) and the results so far found in schools with LFDs (1 in 2000) be down to their lack of sensitivity when being used on young people in a school setting (or indeed, a home setting, as will soon be the case) ?
Scandalously, there is no clear data available because the Government failed to carry out any proper pilot into their use in schools. For example, the original Oxford University evaluation listed the settings in which the Innova tests had been trialled and their results compared with those from PCR tests:
But, as the table shows, where school settings were involved, none of the results were checked against PCR tests at all!
The Government claim they then carried out a further “pilot” into the use of Innova tests in schools. Indeed, Schools Week has reported that part of their “flimsy” evidence backing up their use of the Coronavirus Act to prevent Greenwich council closing its schools, was a claim that closing schools would prevent them using “testing programmes” – and that two Greenwich schools were then “involved in a pilot testing programme”.
But, as an article on the DfE blog makes clear, this pilot was about trialling the use of LFDs to “minimise staff and student absence” by offering them the opportunity to “remain in school and be tested daily rather than self-isolate when they were identified as COVID-19 contacts”. Were the DfE happy to allow participants to ignore their legal responsibilities to self-isolate under their own Government’s legislation? It was certainly without the clearance of the MHRA, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency as also revealed by Schools Week and discussed on my blog in a previous article.
Instead of trialling an unsafe procedure which they were then forced to abandon, the Government missed another opportunity to compare the results from LFDs with those from PCRs. Instead, schools are being expected to run a testing system that has had no serious prior evaluation about its appropriateness in such a setting.
Do not draw false reassurance about transmission in schools from LFD results
Sadly, there is a risk that the low number of positive cases detected through LFDs will give a false reassurance about the amount of transmission taking place in schools.
For example, I was disappointed to read the Director of Public Health for Lancashire, where I am a member of the NEU Branch, saying that "thankfully, the positivity rate in our schools remains extremely low. Between Monday, March 8 and Sunday, March 14, 47 tests taken by secondary pupils were reported as positive, from more than 71,000 tests”.
For all the reasons explained above, this is a false conclusion to draw. Actual positivity rates, and transmission risks within schools, may be far greater, particularly in those areas where local infection rates remain of real concern.
The table below, which I have compiled from official Government data, shows that on 13 March, at the end of the first week of full opening of schools, 34 English Lower Tier Local Authorities had infection rates of over 100/100,000 population over 7 days – and in most of these areas, rates were increasing. Looking at the full UK data, then Merthyr Tydfil and Anglesey in Wales, plus several Scottish Local Authorities, also have similarly worrying high infection rates.
Sunday, 14 March 2021
That gender inequality and violence is rooted in our unequal society, a society which trade unionists and educators can help organise to change. But the shocking scenes in Clapham last night haven’t only exposed the growing threat to the right to protest against such injustice and inequality. These events have also exposed the hypocrisy of politicians who either supported - or failed to oppose - the draconian legislation used to declare peaceful vigils as ‘illegal’ and who are preparing to do the same when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill goes to Parliament tomorrow.
Sexism in Schools
A 2017 NEU survey confirmed the sexism and sexual harassment that young women and girls encounter daily in schools. For example, almost a quarter (24%) of female students at mixed-sex schools reported that they had been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school. Sexist language and gender stereotyping were also commonplace. Yet only 14% of students who had experienced sexual harassment said they had reported it to a teacher.
The NEU has called for consistent and ongoing action from schools and Government to challenge sexism in schools. The number of young women that took part in the vigils that did take place over the weekend showed that many are ready to take a stand against the gender inequality and sexual harassment they have suffered.
Women have again been hit hardest by the pandemic. Schools, where women make up most of the workforce, face further cuts and job losses, particularly amongst support staff. Schools have been left to fully open without the mitigations needed to protect safety in cramped classrooms with poor ventilation.
Given the ongoing risk of rising community infections, it has been understandable that some people have questioned whether public protests should take place. But the risks of infection are considerably less in outdoor environments than the indoor ones like schools and workplaces that the Government insists are “safe” to attend. If the Police had liaised with vigil organisers, a safe and socially distanced event could have been held in Clapham.
The Right to Protest
Instead, the Metropolitan Police used the draconian powers handed to them in the Coronavirus Act. Police were filmed manhandling and arresting young women in scenes that showed a complete lack of understanding as to why so many had gathered together.
As Unite the Union have said in response to these events: "Women gathering in memory of a woman whose life was taken were doing so responsibly, in respectful memory. This grief should have been honoured, not violated” “There is also a very concerning move to limit freedom of protest that will be before parliament this week. We urge those alarmed by the scenes this evening to join with us and voices across civil society to speak as one in defence of our rights to peaceful protest, to support democracy and to keep the powers of the police in check."
Trade Unions must use their strength to oppose injustice and inequality
A few months ago, UNITE successfully challenged in the High Court another attempt by the Police to use the Coronavirus Act to prevent legitimate protest, in this case the right to picket outside your workplace during strike action.
Trade unions have always relied on protest to defend our members from inequality and injustice. Unions have also been at the heart of many of the gains won by women against the sexism and oppression inherent in our society.
Trade unions and trade unionists must now come together to support those wishing to protest against sexual harassment and gender violence and to make sure that the right to protest is defended for all.