School staff shortages ‘could worsen in new term and cause learning disruption’

·6-min read

School leaders have told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen in the new term and cause further disruption to children’s education.

Education union leaders warned of a “stressful time” ahead as existing teacher absences on the first day of term could become even more “challenging” in the weeks ahead.

Some schools are reporting that around one in five staff members could be missing at the start of term.

The chair of Ofqual has suggested that schools may need to suspend “specialist” subjects – like music – to cope with staff absences this term.

Pupils are returning to the classroom after the Christmas break, with new advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Secondary school and college students are also being encouraged to test on site before returning to class.

Some could end up wearing coats in lessons in the weeks ahead as heads and academy leaders increase ventilation to help keep classrooms safe.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Charitable Trust, which has 52 schools across England, told the PA news agency it is too early to say how high staff absences will be when pupils fully return to class.

Based on two primary schools in the trust, he suggested around 20% of staff could be absent.

One school had six staff out of 32 off for an inset day and another had seven missing out of about 35.

The academy trust has purchased iPads for all students in the event of a return to online learning.

“If and when schools do need to go home, and I think it’s more of a when than an if, we are prepared for that,” Mr Chalke said.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has called on former and retired teachers to return to the classroom as part of the Government’s efforts to tackle staff shortages.

Nadhim Zahawi
Nadhim Zahawi (James Manning/PA)

But Mr Chalke said even if as many as 30,000 were recruited, it may only be a “drop in the bucket”.

He added that schools had already been “hammered” over the last six terms with supply teacher costs.

He said: “Schools are desperate for support and it’s great that there’s this call for retired teachers, but a commitment to fund supply teachers would be hugely beneficial.”

In a case study posted on a Department for Education (DfE) portal for headteachers on Sunday, Ian Bauckham, chair of exams regulator Ofqual, said that absence levels could reach a point “where resources can be stretched too thinly and alternatives, however undesirable, become necessary.”

He wrote: “In cases where a specialist teacher rotates between classes to teach subjects that sometimes include, for example, PSHE, RSHE or music, it may be possible temporarily to suspend the teaching of that subject and use that teacher to teach classes whose normal teacher is absent and unable to teach remotely.”

Evelyn Forde, head of Copthall School in Mill Hill, north London, and vice president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said 13 members of staff were absent on an inset day on Tuesday.

Senior members of staff, including Ms Forde herself, will cover lessons at the secondary school and she will try to get supply teachers in, but if the shortages are too great, classes will have to be merged, she said.

Ms Forde said: “We’ve got an assembly hall which is large and we’ve got a sports hall which is really large, but if you take out either of those spaces you’re actually taking out teaching space because we teach in those spaces. So we’re going to have to be very creative in terms of what that looks like.”

She added she was “deeply concerned” that staff shortages and pupil absences could get worse.

Four children had already tested positive for Covid-19 on site on Tuesday, and a number of parents had also sent evidence to the school that their children had caught the virus over the holidays.

Ms Forde said: “If you couple that with the staffing – which is looking pretty horrendous actually – I think the term ahead is going to be really, really challenging for school leaders and the young people.

“We’re ever mindful of trying to socially distance as much as we can, but it’s just not really feasible. We’ll have the windows open and so forth, but everything will present its challenges.”

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

She said it was a “possibility” that pupils may have to wear coats in class due to windows being open.

Tom Quinn, chief executive of the Frank Field Education Trust, which runs two secondary schools and one primary school, said they will also make sure windows are open to increase air circulation and reduce transmission, which he acknowledged could mean more students layering up.

He told PA: “We’ve done this in the past. It’s not ideal. It’s not perfect. But we are still in a pandemic situation and we have to react accordingly.”

Mr Quinn said it is likely there will be further teacher shortages and pupil absences as the term progresses, but he added: “We really want to do everything we can possibly do to make sure children are educated in the classroom with proper teachers.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We are hearing from our members that they are finding some pupils are absent and some staff are off sick or isolating.

“The biggest concern for school leaders is staffing. It only takes a small increase in staff absence to begin to cause real problems.

“School leaders are understandably anxious about how the term might progress if staffing levels fall as some have predicted, and are concerned about maintaining quality of education in the face of shortages.

“School leaders will be doing everything possible to ensure a smooth return and a successful term for their students, but depending on how infection rates progress, it could be another stressful time.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, told PA: “That concern, that anxiety about insufficient teacher numbers, is raising its head amongst our members.

“Frankly if schools don’t have safe staffing levels then it may also be the case that pupils regrettably may have to be sent home.

“The indicators we had just prior to the Christmas break was that in some schools as many as a third of teaching staff were absent. We don’t think that picture is going to have gotten any better for the start of this term.

“We’re already hearing of staff absences now on the first day back which are higher than would normally be expected at this time of the year.

“As we often do see during these winter months, we will see the normal seasonal issues that are impacting on our workforce supply.

“But you add on to that the impact of Omicron in relation to staff who are not able to be in school, or who may have contracted Covid-19, that could make a very challenging situation much worse.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing, which is why face-to-face teaching continues to be an absolute priority.

“The safety measures we have put in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to in-person learning.”

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