Testing time for schools

>>This blog is written by Stu Hyde, Ops Lead at VCSEP. <<

As the Operations Lead at the Emergencies Partnership and a local volunteer, I believe passionately in the value of the Voluntary and Community Sector. The recent schools testing programme has been a powerful example of this.

To reopen after lockdown, secondary schools in England were required to conduct Lateral Flow Tests in the first two weeks of March. Every pupil needed to have 3 supervised tests and then they would be expected to test themselves at home after that. This post explains the valuable role the VCS played, and you can find out more about how the Emergencies Partnership facilitated this here.

There are 3448 secondary schools in England in the state sector including academies. There are a further 352 Pupil Referral Centres and 1044 special schools. Millions of students were tested in this period. Initially, it was anticipated that more than 40,000 volunteers will have to be recruited by secondary schools to mass test their pupils, according to the Department of Education.

Many were concerned that the timescale was tight for such a huge request and response and this scheme represented a massive stand up of help directed at schools from volunteers across the country.

Volunteers poured in as many schools were able to identify helpers and reach out to local communities and local charities. Some decided to use paid staff from other commercial suppliers or by diverting staff from public sector agencies or from within the school community.

The Voluntary Community Sector Emergency Partnership (VCSEP) was asked by the Department of Education (DofE) to support this challenging programme, particularly to help schools who could not easily access volunteers from within their own local communities. The VCSEP designed and published a Toolkit online and reached out through the National Volunteering Coordination Centre to help schools who were unable to manage finding volunteers locally.

So how many were involved?

Here are some of the stories from a range of schools across the country.

In Ulverston (Cumbria) the response to an appeal for volunteers was exceptional. “We were instructed by the Government to organise and carry out over 4,500 student lateral flow tests in nine days (three per student). This meant a somewhat scaling up of our testing centre and we needed help. We appealed to our community hoping to gain the support of 20 or so people — we received over 400 offers of help.

An Ilkley school (Yorkshire) used a similar call out to local community groups to meet its needs: “ Some volunteers came in on their day off from the NHS front line, former teachers returned as volunteers and current teachers and associate staff, including science technicians, offered free periods and to come in on their days off to help the effort.[iii] https://www.ilkleygazette.co.uk/news/19161451.army-volunteers-help-deliver-testing-ilkley-grammar-school/

Many Heads offered public thanks for their volunteers who gave up much time to help the testing effort:

“Thanks to an army of phenomenal volunteers, incredible staff who worked beyond their conventional responsibilities and tremendous students, I am very proud to say that our mass testing programme was a huge success.

Crunching the numbers to understand the impact

Initially it was thought that 40,000 volunteers might be needed. There are 3448 secondary schools in England (not counting special schools) and the examples I’ve seen talk about 10 -20 volunteers per school, making the number somewhere more between 40–70,000 volunteers.

But let’s consider that all this happened over a period of 10 working days (2 school weeks). A minimum of 10 volunteers per day per school, for 10 days gives around 400,000 volunteer days.

If these volunteers had been paid the minimum living wage of £8.72, the schools testing has contributed about £24million value to the education sector alone.

In the current climate funders are desperate to know what has happened to their investment. Data is key is unlocking further investment. The value of the voluntary sector to support national initiatives can be clearly seen — and this shows how even a small injection can produce massive returns.

After the tragedies of 2017 (Grenfell in particular), the Emergencies Partnership formed to improve coordination and collaboration across the voluntary sector. From grass roots to national giants, and government, we work to better understand, and respond to unmet need, together.

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