Schools

Thousands of Primary School Leavers Lack Basic Reading Skills After Months Out of the Classroom

The number of primary school leavers struggling with literacy has risen by 30,000 over the past year, taking the total up to over 200,000. In the past 12 months 840 million days of in-person schooling have been lost. The Sunday Times has the story.

More than 200,000 pupils will move from primary school to secondary school this autumn without being able to read properly, according to unpublished Government figures.

The findings, which have sent a jolt through Downing Street, show the impact of lockdown on learning, with the number of children struggling with literacy rising by 30,000 over the past year.

Boris Johnson will use a key speech to launch a “four-year emergency” plan to help disadvantaged children catch up.

Senior Government sources said the problem was the prime minister’s top priority after the coronavirus vaccination programme and would remain a central focus until the next election.

A week ago Johnson met Sir Kevan Collins, who is leading a review of the impact of the coronavirus on schoolchildren. He is said to have “put a rocket up” No 10 about the scale of the crisis. …

At his Downing Street press conference on March 23rd, the prime minister said: “It’s the loss of learning for so many children and young people that’s the thing we’ve got to focus on now as a society.” He expressed concern about those “unable properly to read or write as a result of Covid”.

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner drew attention to the damage done to education by the lockdown policy.

A report by the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, found that about 840 million days of in-person schooling, equal to roughly 19 weeks a pupil, had been lost since the start of the pandemic until March 8th.

De Souza called last night for a “supercharged educational catch-up”. She said: “We asked children to make a huge sacrifice to help control the virus and now we need to give them something back.”

Worth reading in full.

Vast Majority of Positives in Schools Likely to be False

The “vast majority” of positives test results in schools are likely to be false, according to Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics and head of the Test Evaluation Research Group at the University of Birmingham. The Telegraph has more.

Official data shows that the positive rate among secondary pupils is around 0.05 per cent, meaning there is a “high risk” that most rapid antigen tests carried out in secondary schools are false positives, according to Professor Jon Deeks.

Of the 3,867,007 lateral flow tests that were carried out on secondary pupils, just 1,805 were positive, according to the latest figures.

Health officials said that less than one in 1,000 results is a false positive overall. However, when the virus is on the wane, there is a higher likelihood of such results, as the number of true cases falls.

The positive case rate in schools equates to one in 2,142. At a rate of one in 1,000 false positives, from 3,867,007 tests you would expect 3,867 false positives.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Department for Education updated its official guidance today to say that all positive lateral flow tests taken in schools should be followed up by a confirmatory PCR test. Previously, this was only the case for tests taken by students at home.

Lateral Flow Tests Too Inaccurate for Mass Testing, Major Review Finds

Lateral flow tests (LFTs) are too inaccurate to be used in mass screening in schools and workplaces, a major review led by Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, has concluded. The Telegraph has the details.

A Cochrane review of 64 studies found that asymptomatic testing only picked up around 50% of cases, and picked up far more false than real positives when infection rates were low in the community.

False results from lateral flow Covid tests may mean workplaces and schools will be needlessly forced to close even though the scheme was set up to keep them open, experts cautioned.

The group concluded that mass testing policies had been implemented “without any supporting real-world evidence”.

Jon Deeks, the review author and a Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said it was “shocking” that the Government had allowed the rollout of such a “large, invasive and expensive” testing programme without the data to back it up. 

“One of the issues which should have been picked up is these tests work a lot less well in people who are asymptomatic, and the Government has not been clear about that,” he said.

“It is being used in ways which actually risk people getting false reassurance when they miss cases, and getting false positives, and that has been a big problem in schools. There are instances when whole classes have been sent home – effectively, 100 people put into isolation.”

Prof Deeks added: “So I think there are big problems in the way that we’re using this. And when prevalence drops you get more false positives and fewer true positives, that’s a mathematical certainty, and there is a point where you should stop. We may already be at that point.

“When is it that we are actually going to be doing more harm than good? These testing policies have been implemented without any supporting real-world evidence.”

The review calculates that at current virus prevalence rates of 0.5%, around 72% of positives would be false.

In terms of not missing infections, the review found the tests correctly identified only 58% of those who were infected but had no symptoms, and missed 42%. It did not acknowledge, though, that where these asymptomatic infections are identified by PCR tests (as most of them are), the PCR positives are likely to be false or cold positives themselves.

The review found the tests to be more accurate in people with symptoms, estimating the LFTs would correctly identify around 72% of people with symptoms who had Covid, and miss 28%.

The researchers suggested the tests would be better used for symptomatic people, and that any positives should also be re-tested with a PCR test to reduce the chance of false positives (though they didn’t note that PCR tests are more sensitive than LFTs so are more not less likely to pick up cold positives).

Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s COVID-19 Strategic Response Director, defended the testing programme, essentially saying every little helps:

Rapid tests are effective at detecting Covid in people that are highly infectious, both with and without symptoms. Every day, rapid testing is helping us find cases of COVID-19 that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, breaking chains of transmission and potentially saving lives.

Mass screening of asymptomatic people to try to pick up invisible, isolated infections is an exercise fraught with pitfalls, as experts have been warning for months and Professor Deeks’ review now confirms. The Government needs to heed the lessons of this review and abandon its costly and invasive effort to make reopening society dependent on constant testing for a disease almost no one has. Ministers need to plot a much clearer and swifter path back to normal – a normal which doesn’t involve testing week in, week out for a disease for which you have no symptoms.

More Than 200,000 Schoolchildren Currently Self-Isolating

With mass testing of schoolchildren happening every week – and the fact that those testing positive and their contacts are required to self-isolate – it is not surprising that more than 200,000 children were at home isolating at the end of last week, according to official estimates. MailOnline has the details.

More than nine in 10 pupils attended schools in England last week – but a growing number of children were self-isolating at home due to possible contact with COVID-19 cases, Government figures show.

Attendance in state schools last week was the highest it has been at any point during the pandemic, the Department for Education (DfE) analysis shows.

But the data suggests that 169,000 pupils were out of class and self-isolating on Thursday last week due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus.

The DfE estimates that approximately 2% of all state school pupils on roll up to 201,000 children did not attend school for COVID-19 related reasons on March 18th, up from 1% on March 11th.

This includes 127,000 pupils who have been self-isolating due to a potential contact with a COVID-19 case from inside the educational setting, and a further 42,000 pupils who were self-isolating due to a possible contact outside of school.

Meanwhile, 21,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had COVID-19, 7,000 were off after testing positive for COVID-19, and 4,000 were absent as their school was closed due to Covid-19 reasons.

Secondary schools in England were given flexibility to stagger the return of their pupils between March 8th and 12th as these students were being asked to take voluntary COVID-19 tests on site as part of their return.

Overall, attendance in state schools was 91% on March 18th, up from 89% on March 11th when some secondary schools were still phasing in the return of pupils due to the logistics of mass testing.

Around 89% of secondary school pupils were in class on March 18th a similar proportion to the start of the second week of schools reopening in England.

But attendance in primary schools fell to 93% on Thursday last week from 95% the previous week, the figures show.

Perhaps most shocking is that 200,000+ were self-isolating last week even though just 0.067% of the millions of tests carried out came back positive. Given that this is below the estimated false positive rate of the lateral flow tests of 0.32% (the FPR can differ by age group and is thought to be lower in younger people), this suggests almost all of the positives are not real infections, or at least not contagious.

The Government’s refusal to allow confirmatory testing, either by PCR or by a second lateral flow test, prevents many of these false positives being identified and the needless harm of self-isolation being avoided.

If the Government is going to insist on continuing the pandemic-perpetuating practice of mass testing, the least it can do is allow the escape route of a second test for the victims of the imperfect tests.

The Mail report is worth reading in full.

0.06% of School Covid Tests Positive Last Week

In the week that all students returned to school, only 0.06% of rapid Covid tests produced positive results. The TES has the story.

Only 0.06% of the rapid Covid tests carried out in schools in the week that all pupils returned were positive, new statistics reveal.

More than 4.5 million lateral flow tests were taken in schools and colleges in the week between March 4th and March 10th according to Department of Heath statistics. 

But they only picked up 2796 positive cases.

The question is, how many of these positive results really were positive? Earlier this month, Will Jones wrote here that “mass testing in schools was always a bad idea – cruel, intrusive, pointless. The high proportion of false positives, with their needless and disruptive requirement to self-isolate, only underlines that fact”. A report in the Telegraph also explained that infection levels are now so low that the majority of positive results could be false.

Biostaticians are concerned that infections in the community are now so low, that false positives and negatives are vastly outnumbering true cases, leading to real cases being missed and families needlessly being asked to isolate.

Pupils are currently being tested twice a week for coronavirus using lateral flow devices, but real-world data has shown they miss positive cases around 50% of the time.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Figures show that children returning to school has not led to a rise in Covid infections. The Telegraph has the story.

A detailed analysis by Prof Jon Deeks, an expert in biostatistics at Birmingham University, has found that the number of positive cases among pupils are far lower than ministers expected.

“The big question is why is that happening? There are two explanations,” he said. “The first is that this test doesn’t work very well in children and it doesn’t detect the cases. And the other is that asymptomatic infection is much less common in children.

“If the reason is that there aren’t many cases, then this is good news. But if the reason is that the tests are missing cases this is bad news. And if we don’t know – that is very bad news.”

Worth reading in full.

Adults Have Failed Children on Masks and More

Molly Kingsley has written a stinging piece in the Telegraph on the failure of many adults to speak up for children over the last year of madness. She is one of the three founders of the UsForThem organisation which campaigns against intrusive social distancing measures in schools.

Too many in positions of responsibility for children have stayed silent in the face of clear harm to those children. This was drummed home to me earlier this week watching an interview of Vicky Ford – our Children’s Minister – by Julia Hartley-Brewer: a seven-minute annihilation which epitomises perfectly the dearth of courageous advocacy for children. Challenged to explain why there has been no controlled trial for masks in classrooms, Ford could not. Challenged to explain what advice had changed to justify the extension of the mask mandate to classrooms, Ford could not. Challenged to explain what had changed to make schools less safe without masks this term than they were last term – again, Ford could not. In each case the answer was simply “we are following the medical advice”. At no point did she attempt to articulate that advice, or, in fact, to give any indication that she could explain or indeed had even seen it herself.    

Vicky Ford is not alone. There is a long list of adults and organisations with a duty to children – be that legal, fiduciary, professional or simply moral – and in some cases who are paid to carry out that duty. Some have spoken, but many more have acquiesced…

Over the last year, we have, in the name of protecting the elderly and vulnerable, somehow managed to reverse one of the key tenets of medical ethics: first do no harm. We’ve introduced, and we continue to introduce, interventions not only without proper, or indeed any, evaluation as to harms; but worse, we do so in the knowing presence of potentially serious, and escalating, harm.

It was announced last night that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faces a legal challenge over the wearing of face masks in schools, especially in relation to the “devastating” effects for deaf children.

Very much worth reading in full.

Education Secretary Faces Legal Challenge Over Face Masks in the Classroom

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faces a legal challenge over the wearing of face masks in schools as he is told that official guidance will have “devastating” effects for deaf children. The Telegraph has the story.

Gavin Williamson has been sent a Letter before Action by lawyers acting for the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) who say the guidance is “unlawful” and must be urgently changed.

It comes amid rising pressure on the Government over its latest guidance on masks, which says they should be worn by secondary pupils in lessons as well as anywhere indoors at school where it is not possible to socially distance.

This goes much further than the earlier official recommendations on face masks in secondary schools. During the autumn term, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) said face masks should be worn in corridors and communal areas in parts of the country under Tier 2 or Tier 3 restrictions. Elsewhere, it was left to the discretion of headteachers.

Now Mr Williamson has been told that the guidance on face masks in schools is “unlawful, irrational and inconsistent” with his legal duties.

The NDCS say that face masks create a “wholly avoidable additional barrier” to learning and social interaction for deaf children who need to be able to see the faces of their peers and teachers in order to lip read.

Lip reading would be possible if transparent face masks were used in schools, but the guidance claims there is “very limited evidence” for their effectiveness or safety which has put headteachers off allowing them. 

The pre-action letter explains that the guidance is “irrational” since it encourages the use of homemade face masks – which it says could be made with a scarf or bandana – while discouraging the use of transparent masks.

“The suggestion that transparent face coverings may be ineffective is belied by the fact that specified transparent face coverings have been approved for use by the NHS in numerous healthcare settings and meet the standard set for face coverings,” it says.

Worth reading in full.

Two Thirds of Covid Cases in Schoolchildren Are False Positives Say Experts

Mass testing in schools as children returned this week is resulting in hundreds of positives – but viral prevalence is now so low that the large majority of them are wrong and result in children and their contacts isolating needlessly. Sarah Knapton in the Telegraph explains.

Biostaticians are concerned that infections in the community are now so low, that false positives and negatives are vastly outnumbering true cases, leading to real cases being missed and families needlessly being asked to isolate.

Pupils are currently being tested twice a week for coronavirus using lateral flow devices, but real-world data has shown they miss positive cases around 50% of the time.

Similarly, although they pick up 99.9% of negative cases, meaning fewer than 0.1% will be false positives, the prevalence rate is now low enough that false positives will be making a significant contribution to the overall figure.

Previously, positive tests were confirmed using a more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) lab test, but this week the Government admitted it had quietly scrapped the process at the end of January.

It means that thousands of pupils and their families are having to isolate needlessly, and missing more school after months away from classrooms.

The latest figures from NHS Test and Trace in secondary schools found 328 positives out of 663,332 tests between February 25th and March 5th. That’s 1 in 2,000 pupils, which is far lower than the 1 in 270 that the latest ONS survey suggests is the current community prevalence. Some are concerned this means large numbers of cases are being missed, though the PCR-based ONS survey picks up many of the non-infectious cold positives which the less sensitive lateral flow tests (LFTs) do not. There is no reason to regard missing cold positives as a problem, particularly given the personal and economic cost of isolating positive cases.

In primary schools, 613 positives were found from 721,546 tests, or about 85 in 100,000. This gives an overall school prevalence rate of about 0.067%.

At this rate (if it were the true prevalence), out of a million tests 670 should come back as true positives. However, with a 0.1% false positive rate (a conservative estimate for LFTs, which were found in a report to have a 0.32% false positive rate) there would also be 1,000 false positives. That means 1,000 out of 1,670 positives, or around 60%, would be false. Of course, the 670 positives per million from the last couple of weeks of testing include the false positives, so the actual proportion of false positives will be higher.

Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician from the University of Birmingham, told the Telegraph:

We would expect far more false positives than true positives amongst those testing positives in schools. There are many uncertainties but given the DHSC data it seems likely that over 70% of positive test results are false positives, potentially many more. Addition of a confirmatory PCR would add little cost and would most likely reduce false positives to 1 in 1,000,000. The refusal to confirm lateral flow results with PCR is at best perplexing, will make testing less attractive, and create harm by wrongly isolating individuals, families and other close contacts.

Confirmatory PCR testing for LFT positives is unlikely to help, however, in terms of weeding out cold positives, as the PCR tests are much more sensitive than the LFTs (picking up many more cold positives) and so are unlikely to give a negative where an LFT has come out as a cold positive.

There is also the question of how many of the tests have been incorrectly carried out, perhaps on purpose, if self-administered, to avoid having to isolate?

Mass testing in schools was always a bad idea – cruel, intrusive, pointless. The high proportion of false positives, with their needless and disruptive requirement to self-isolate, only underlines that fact.

Testing Regime in Schools Ignores Problem of False Positives

Biostatistics Professor Jon Deeks has written a critical piece on the shortfalls of the current mass testing regime for children in schools. Of particular concern is the occurrence of false positives. UnHerd has the story.

The fitness for purpose [of the testing regime] is a combination of the sensitivity of the test (what percentage of infected cases it correctly identifies) and the specificity (what percentage of uninfected people it correctly says are negative). But it also depends on how, where and when a test is used.

Different studies of the UK Innova lateral flow test (the test being used in schools) have reported variously that its sensitivity is 78%, 58%, 40% and even 3%. The higher 78% and 58% figures come from using the test among people with symptoms, the lower 40% and 3% figures come from using it for mass testing among people without symptoms, as is being done in schools. (And none of these studies have assessed how well the test detects infection in children). So although the test can pick up people who have the infection, it will miss quite a few – so there is a risk that disinhibition after a negative test could actually exacerbate case numbers if children incorrectly think they are safe and the rules no longer apply.

But the more concerning aspect are the false positives, related to the specificity. The original Government studies found only around 3 in 1,000 people were getting false positives, and this dropped to 1 in 1,000 in the Liverpool study. Doesn’t sound like a lot, right?

But consider the problem from the perspective of a pupil who has just got a positive test result. The reasonable question for them (and their parents) to ask is “what are the chances that this is a false positive?” Given that a positive test result means the pupil, their family and their school bubble will have to isolate for 10 days, a high false positive probability is a real problem.

Jon, who is a Senior Researcher in the Institute of Applied Health Research at Birmingham University, goes on to outline three scenarios regarding the prevalence of the disease and the accuracy of the tests.

Where 1 in 100 pupils have the infection (Scenario A), by testing a million we would find 5,000 cases but get 990 false positives. This ratio of true to false positives is quite favourable – 5 out of every 6 with positive results actually would have COVID-19 infection – so the probability that the pupil genuinely has the infection is over 80%.

However, the picture becomes less favourable as the infection becomes rarer: if only 1 in 1,000 pupils were infected (Scenario B) we would detect 500 cases but get 999 false positives. The ratio of true to false positives is now unfavourable – one true result for every two false results.

If only 1 in 10,000 had the infection there would be one true result for every 20 false results (Scenario C). Why would anybody consent to a test where the chances that a positive result is wrong are so much higher than it is right? This isn’t the fault of the test – it’s the application in a low prevalence setting. Using any test – even one with an incredibly high specificity – will lead to more false than true positive results when the disease becomes rare.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The Government’s refusal to let pupils use follow-up tests to confirm positive Covid results is “ruining” their return to school, parents say.

Stop Press 2: Professor Deeks made the same point in an interview for Radio 5 Live.

Government’s Long, Slow Walk to Freedom is Costing Billions and Makes No Sense

This afternoon’s No 10 Press Conference

Today Boris Johnson held a press conference to mark what he described as an “emotional” moment in the lifting of lockdown as children return to school. Encouragingly, he said that the “greater risk now is keeping them out of school for a day longer”. 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries told the press conference that she didn’t expect schools to be forced to close again.

Less welcome was that she said it would take some families time to get used to the wearing of masks and regular testing, as though this was to be part of an ongoing normality.

On the plus side, she said the vaccination programme meant the R number was no longer so important.

The whole issue about vaccination of course is we have now protected the most vulnerable individuals as we come down the age groups into those with underlying health conditions. And so the impact on our hospitals going forward is likely to be significantly less.

She noted that cases, hospital admissions and deaths continue to fall, and that infections are now below 100 per 100,000 of population in every part of the country and are back to where they were in September.

She then reverted to alarmist nonsense, saying: “This is a level at which a new wave could easily take off from again”, and there is still “substantial strain” on the NHS.

In other words, everything’s going down – but don’t think that means you can resume your liberties, as it could reverse at any moment. On that logic, we’ll never be free.

As for the NHS being under “substantial strain” – Covid patient levels are back to where they were in October, when hospitals were running at normal levels, and dropping quickly.