A £35,000 in-school Covid testing machine? Only in the private sector

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The schools divide between private and state is not just about the quality of education – now it’s about whether or not the students and staff can get a coronavirus test.

While those at state schools have been struggling to book a test since the start of term, their peers at private schools are facing no such problem. Both the Independent Schools Association (ISA) and the Independent Association of Prep Schools say some of their members have privately purchased Covid-19 tests to use on pupils and staff who display symptoms.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, the chief executive of the ISA, said private schools are simply doing what is necessary to stay open and functioning normally. “I think headteachers are just keen to get hold of tests in whatever way they can and get results back as quickly as possible.

“It’s a case of practicality. Independent schools want to do whatever works.”

Last week, headteachers and governors of state schools wrote to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, “imploring” him to take personal charge of the crisis in NHS Covid-testing, which has already forced many teachers and students to miss school. All three of the organisations that represent school leaders warned the prime minister that children’s return to education is being put at risk due to the difficulties staff and pupils are facing in obtaining tests.

Kate Green, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, warned that the new private-state divide was creating “a postcode lottery of testing”.

“The government must urgently get a grip on the testing system, and put children and their education first, ensuring that nobody is shut out of school because of this government’s incompetence,” she said.

Eton College, which tested all staff and students at the start of term, is one of those offering private testing. The elite boarding school said it was “acting on the advice of senior health professionals”, and had taken the decision to test because it was “determined not to put additional pressure on the NHS”.

Another boarding school, Benenden in Kent, has purchased its own rapid Covid-19 testing machine, the Samba II, for £35,000 plus VAT, with test capsules costing £60 each. The school nurse is on hand to administer each test, and staff have been trained to operate the machine, allowing everyone in the school to be diagnosed on-site with results available in 90 minutes.

Headteacher Samantha Price said she had decided to purchase a testing facility in late August after sensing that NHS testing was going to be “very, very stretched once real life resumed in September”.

For Jules White, headteacher and founder of the school-funding campaign Worth Less?, the stark inequalities inherent in the UK education system are being highlighted by the pandemic yet again.

“While fee-paying schools enjoy the luxury of private testing to keep their staff and students safe and their schools functioning effectively, the rest of us are being let down by a wholly inadequate test-trace system that is depriving children of the best opportunity to catch up on lost learning and ensuring that teachers and support staff up and down the country are put under yet more pressure.”

His state secondary school, in West Sussex, has been given just 10 emergency NHS testing kits to cover 1,500 pupils and 180 staff. By contrast, at Benenden School, which has 550 pupils and 400 staff, 25 tests have already been carried out this term, catching a couple of positive cases.

The school has also allowed two local state schools, the John Wallis Church of England Academy and Benenden Primary School, free access to the machine and is subsidising the costs of all tests for pupils and staff at these schools, as part of its “community work”.

“We see it as part of the public benefit we offer,” said Price.