Secondary schools and colleges will be allowed to start testing students on-site before March 8, the Department for Education has confirmed.

Increasing numbers of leaders have been calling for clarity on the matter since the announcement earlier this week that learners will be tested four times – the first three on-site – when they return to school and college.

Schools and colleges were originally told they would have to conduct the four tests in the first two weeks after they reopen more widely. But despite leaders being given “discretion” on how students are tested in the first week back, some had raised concerns about the logistics of testing large numbers of pupils in a short period.

The DfE has now confirmed in a bulletin to leaders that schools and colleges may start testing pupils before March 8 “if they would like to do so”.

This means students and pupils “may go to school or college specifically for a test before Monday March 8 if their school or college offers to test them”.

Participation will be voluntary and “at the discretion of each school or college”, and schools and colleges will still be expected to follow operational guidance, the DfE said.

Students being tested before March 8 “must maintain social distance and must go home after their test result”. After schools and colleges reopen officially, learners will be able to start attending for lessons after their first negative result.

Secondary schools and colleges are still expected to do three on-site tests between three and five days apart. Learners will then be asked to conduct their fourth test at home, and then test themselves twice weekly in the weeks thereafter.

The DfE has said that testing at home “should not start” until the week commending March 15.

Schools and colleges will also “need to consider the transport implications of testing before Monday March 8”, the DfE said.

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