Every secondary school and college in England will be given access to rapid coronavirus tests from January, the Government has announced.
Students will not need to self-isolate if another student or staff member tests positive in their “bubble” if they agree to be tested once a day in the new year, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.
It is hoped the change in guidance will improve attendance and ensure young people can benefit from face-to-face teaching as much as possible.
All staff in secondary schools and colleges will be eligible for weekly rapid tests as part of an initial rollout, but they will also be offered daily testing if they are identified as a close contact.
The move comes as the latest figures from the DfE show that pupil attendance fell last week.
Approximately between 7% and 9% of state school pupils – up to 694,000 children – did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons on Thursday.
Three in five (60%) of secondary schools reported they had one or more pupils self-isolating who were told to do so due to potential contact with a Covid-19 case inside the school.
Under current guidelines, up to a whole school bubble has to self-isolate if one student or staff member tests positive.
But from January, students will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if they are identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive.
Those in the same bubble will not need to self-isolate if they agree to be tested once a day.
The tests will require the consent of parents, students or school staff, the DfE has said.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “This huge expansion of rapid testing for those working in education is a milestone moment in our work to keep schools and colleges open for all.
Testing on this scale brings real benefits to education, it means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their classes in schools and colleges without the need to self-isolateEducation Secretary Gavin Williamson
“I know it has taken a phenomenal effort from everyone to ensure approximately 99% of schools have been open each week since the start of term.
“Testing on this scale brings real benefits to education, it means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their classes in schools and colleges without the need to self-isolate.”
The announcement came as the DfE also published a regional and local breakdown of attendance rates across England over the autumn term.
From mid-September until the October half-term, attendance was lowest in the north west of England.
But after half-term, attendance was lowest in the North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.
On November 19, attendance in the West Midlands was 77%, compared with 87% in the East of England.
But pupil attendance in London (80%) and the South East (82%) was lowest across the country last week.
Test kits will begin arriving at secondary schools and colleges for the first phase of rollout to staff from the first week of January.
But the National Education Union (NEU) said it was “ridiculous” for schools to start preparing for the rollout of testing in the final week of term with “almost zero notice”.
The Government is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory once againPaul Whiteman, NAHT
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “A much more sensible position, which we urge the Government to adopt, would be that the first week, at least, of learning in January should be online, with schools using that time to train staff on using the testing materials and protocols.
“That extra week of children being at home would suppress virus levels so that far fewer children had to be sent home when testing begins.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is extremely disappointing that what had the potential to be good news has been handled so badly by government. The Government is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory once again.
“The use of lateral flow tests in schools has potential to make a positive impact by helping to break chains of transmission early. But this requires not only sufficient tests but also the trained staff to administer them.
“The Government appears able to deliver on one but not the other – it is delivering testing kits to secondary schools without the staff, the training or the clinical supervision to carry them out effectively.
But Hamid Patel, chief executive of Star Academies, an academy trust with schools participating in the autumn testing trials, said: “Attendance has improved as fewer close contacts have been required to self-isolate.
“Parents who may have been wavering have gained confidence to send their children to school, and staff have been reassured by the availability of testing.”
“It is a game-changer for the sector,” Mr Patel added.