School's Covid Testing Pilot Helped 500 Pupils And Staff Avoid Isolation

Bolton school head hails the "massively" positive impact on mental health of pupils
Aaron Chown - PA Images via Getty Images

A school that trialled a radical Covid testing regime has spared more than 500 pupils and staff from having to isolate at home, its headteacher has revealed.

Westhoughton High School in Bolton allows even “close contacts” of positive cases to keep on attending class, provided they can show negative daily lateral flow tests and negative PCR tests every five days.

Headteacher Patrick Ottley-O’Connor told the BBC there had been a “massively” positive impact on students’ mental health as well as on their ability to keep learning in person.

The school, which ended its government pilot scheme last Thursday, reported more than 3,500 “saved learning days” thanks to its system of allowing pupils to attend even if they were in the same class as someone who tested positive.

Under the clinical trial, only those staff and students who test positive are required to stay at home.

Others in their 30-strong “bubble” are allowed to keep on attending, with parental consent, as long as they have a negative lateral flow test for seven days.

On day two and day seven, they have to also show a negative PCR test. Pupils taking part in the scheme still have to stay at home in the evening and at weekends.

The success of the programme is sure to be pounced on by MPs and parents, many of whom are now calling for a more risk-based approach and the end of the practice of forcing a whole class to quarantine if one child contracts the virus.

Latest figures showed pupil absence due to Covid had hit a record high since classes went back in March, with more than 330,000 children in England forced to isolate at home in the past week.

Data from the Department for Education, covering England, shows that around one in 20 (5.1%) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19-related reasons on June 24, up from 3.3% on June 17 and 1.2% on June 10.

Health secretary Sajid Javid revealed on Monday that he had asked for the evidence from pilot schemes.

Ottley-O’Connor told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme that “when we had the opportunity to take part in the clinical trial we jumped at it”.

“It’s really helped obviously the learning, but the mental health of students has been massively impacted positively by being able to stay in school.

“Two weeks ago within Bolton there were rising cases, I had two positive cases within staff and that affected 18 staff in total close contacts, myself included.

“But only those two people had to be at home, the rest of us could come in, do our daily testing in the morning…[and] test negative and continue our daily work.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the latest absence figures showed the need for action.

“Ministers must work with their expert scientific advisers now to review the bubbles system ahead of the summer holidays to ensure as many children can be in the classroom as possible.”