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Teachers Feeling The Strain Of Covid Staff Absences Are Sceptical About Volunteer Scheme

Students arriving at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire in 2021. Credit: Alamy

5 min read

Just days into a new term teachers across the country have told PoliticsHome they are already facing severe staffing challenges as a result of Covid sickness and are having to make changes to the way pupils are taught. 

When Omicron led to a huge surge in Covid cases late last year, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi issued a call to former teachers to return to the classroom to cover inevitable staff absences as a result of sickness and isolation. 

Ahead of schools returning this week, Zahawi said that "many have stepped forward", and yesterday vaccines minister Maggie Throup told the BBC that "a matter of thousands" have come forwards to say they will help.

But teachers faced with huge gaps in their workforces are sceptical that many former teachers have taken up the challenge of returning to schools. 

"Dream on – I have not heard of a single case of that happening so far," a primary school teacher in South Yorkshire told PoliticsHome. 

They said that on their return to work following the Christmas break yesterday, three members of staff were off with Covid – one teacher and two teaching assistants.

"There are no tests in school right now either so if we need to do a lateral flow we have to provide that ourselves," they added. 

Andy Byers, headteacher of Framwellgate School Durham, in Durham City, and a member of the Association of Education Advisors, said 12 out 80 of his staff were off today – more than 10% of the workforce – and that it was incredibly difficult to find cover.

"I'm not saying it wasn't a good idea to ask [for volunteers] but it's not going to solve the problem schools are facing," Byers explained. 

"I've had no contact from anyone who wants to return to work in school, and I've got a large network of teachers in the North East I speak to regularly. 

"I've yet to come across a single teacher who has had people wanting to come back into the profession.

"There could be people out there who have responded to the request, one or two here and there, but it wont fix the need we have got which is pretty dire."

Byers had found it equally difficult to find cover from teachers already registered with supply agencies that would usually plug staffing gaps. 

"For the first time I'm hearing from the agencies we use that they havent got anybody at all on the books," he continued

"We're having to ring round a lot of other agencies to find people. So there's a lack of consistency really as they don't know the school or the kids."

The Department for Education told PoliticsHome they were unable to confirm how many ex-teachers they had managed recruit via the volunteer scheme, and how many had registered with government website Get Into Teaching.

Zahawi told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the volunteer scheme would be extended to February half term, and that numbers on uptake so far would be made available later this week. 

With more than 200,000 daily Covid cases reported for the first time this week, and no sign the Omicron surge has peaked, schools are concerned staffing problems are likey to persist. 

"At this stage most staff are thinking it'll be a case of when they get Covid, rather than if, and we are preparing to have high staff absences in the next few weeks," one secondary school teacher in the North East of England said.

"Merging classes will probably have to happen and staff will find that stressful because if you don't know the students you can't teach them adequately."

They said their school has hired two supply teachers to cover the winter period which could alleviate some of the pressure, but warned it was still likely the school would have to adopt a "hybrid" approach where some students are in the classroom, while others dial into classes online. 

This creates extra workload for teachers. "It's a nightmare in terms of timetabling," they added. "It's difficult."

Labour's shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson was critical of the government's "reliance on retired teachers" to fill staffing gaps, and said the volunteer scheme was a "sticking plaster".

"Reports that ministers do not know how many have volunteered to return to the classroom shows they are completely unprepared to manage potential staff absence levels this term," she said. 

“Ministers have failed to get a proper workforce plan in place, just as they have failed to ramp-up vaccine roll-out to eligible children and get the ventilation systems scientific experts, teachers and Labour have been calling for, out into schools."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary for school leaders’ union NAHT, praised the "relentless dedication" of schools in putting testing requirements into place to get pupils back in the classroom, but expressed concern about the impact of staff absences. 

"We are hearing from our members that they are finding some pupils are absent and some staff are off sick or isolating," he said.  

"It is not a uniform picture, but at the moment school contingency plans are being relied upon to keep the system working.

“It remains to be seen how that progresses during the rest of the week and further into the term. It only takes a small increase in staff absence to begin to cause real problems.

"The government will need to be realistic about its expectations of schools. If the priority is to keep children in school we will need innovative approaches to delivery when staffing is critically low."

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