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Ministers Accused Of Hiding "Woeful" Lack Of Ex-Teachers Returning To Classrooms To Fill Covid Gaps

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi.

3 min read

Labour has accused ministers of trying to hide what appears to be a scant response to the government's call for former teachers to return to the classroom to cover staff off sick with Covid-19.

As the Omicron variant began to surge late last year, Eduation Secretary Nadhim Zahawi asked former teachers to come back into schools to cover lessons while staff are off sick with the virus. They were told they could sign up via the Department for Education's 'Get Into Teaching' website.

But when term started back after Christmas last week, schools reported dramatic rates of staff absence – between 10 and 20% – and many said they were struggling to find supply teachers.

Until last night it was unknown how many volunteer teachers answered the government's call, despite questions from the media and opposition parties, but teachers are sceptical that there has been much uptake.

The Department for Education said initial data from around ten per cent of supply agencies shows that 485 former teacher have signed up with agencies and a further 100 Teach First alumni have also expressed interest in supporting the workforce.  

Whitehall officials said that given the size of the sample, the actual number of ex-teachers who have signed up is likely to be much larger.

This comes after vaccines minister Maggie Throup claimed the week before that there had been "thousands" of volunteers.

Schools minister Robin Walker also said in answer to a parliamentary written question that supply teacher agency data is not available because they are private businesses.

Shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan described the volunteer scheme as a "sticking plaster", and accused the government of incompetance over its inability to give updates on uptake. 

On Monday he said: "Ministers either don't know or are trying to cover up woefully inadequate numbers.

"Neither of these are acceptable answers at a time when spiking staff absences threaten further schools chaos."


Andy Byers, a headteacher of Framwellgate School Durham, in Durham City, and a member of the Association of Education Advisors, told PoliticsHome at the start of the new term that even if schools can find some volunteers in the next few weeks, it's not going to solve the problem schools are facing when it comes to staffing.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is great to see that a number of former teachers have been willing to offer their services to schools to help with the current staffing challenges caused by Covid. It is certainly helpful to have people with the right qualifications and recent, relevant experience to boost the number of supply teachers currently available to schools. 

“Unfortunately, the number of former teachers who have returned to classrooms is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge faced.

Government figures show that over 40,000 teachers were absent from the workforce in the first week of term, he said, while the NAHT’s own survey taken on January 5 found a small but growing number of schools experiencing teacher staff absence rates of more than 20%.

One former teacher, who is now a Labour councillor in Slough, said she answered the government's call because she wanted to help children at risk from missing vital lessons.

"I gained Qualified Teacher Status in 2013 to teach Primary children," Natasa Pantelic said.

"I can’t stand the thought of children not learning during the pandemic because there is a shortage of teachers and so I’m going back to the classroom to help out.

"I watched Nadhim Zahawi’s video asking former teachers to come back into the workforce and the situation must be very serious for him to have done that."

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