Voices: We keep forgetting that the school system is on the verge of falling over

·4-min read
‘The threat of system failure in education is every bit as real as it is in the NHS’  (PA)
‘The threat of system failure in education is every bit as real as it is in the NHS’ (PA)

We’re now so deep into the pandemic that it’s sometimes hard to remember quite what a crazy thing it is that we’ve been living through. It can feel like we’ve lost all sense of perspective. Stories that in normal times would be on pages 1-9 of most national newspapers come and go almost daily now, barely bothering the headline writers.

One such tale broke on Monday when the government announced that it wanted to recruit a “Dads’ Army” of retired teachers to plug the growing gaps in the classroom, as school staff go off sick with Omicron.

Taken in isolation, the idea that staffing levels were so desperate in primaries and secondaries that grannies and grandads were being co-opted to fill the vacuum would have been extraordinary, and yet most media outlets treated it as just the latest bump on the Coronavirus Express to Mayhem.

Setting to one side whether it’s a big story or not, the fact that the Department for Education is desperate enough to try such measures is illustrative of the fact that, come 4 January, the country is very likely to be witnessing one of the biggest developments of the pandemic: the school system on the verge of falling over.

Lockdown or no lockdown, the threat of system failure in education is every bit as real – if not as life-threatening – as it is in the NHS. You only need to speak to a teacher to know how challenging life in schools has been in the last several months. The autumn term started tough – with Covid protocols changing and the threat of coronavirus continuing to loom large – and finished with Omicron seeping its way into every aspect of school life. Official teacher absence data due to Covid was already creeping up in November – reports suggest that this has exploded during December.

Normally at this time of year, most school staff are recharging their batteries, thinking of little other than what size turkey will be needed. Not in 2021. Heads and teachers tell me that they already feel like they staring down the barrel of next term. They believe there are essentially two possible outcomes, both of them very bad.

First is that schools stay open whatever other restrictions Boris Johnson puts in place. In this scenario, the ever-dwindling number of teachers who are not at home isolating will be very much on the frontline. Normal school with a normal timetable and a normal curriculum will become increasingly hard to maintain with the shrinking staffing levels and teachers being forced out of service at a moment’s notice. The pressures in the staffroom will be huge.

The second scenario – one that ministers will do everything in their power to avoid – sees schools partly closed under the hardest of hard lockdowns, as per March 2021. Such an outcome – remember how utterly unthinkable this would have seemed from the perspective of 2019 – would see possibly 60-70 per cent of children condemned to weeks of Zoom lessons, with the remainder (the children of key workers or identified as vulnerable by social workers) still going to school.

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While we can assume that this would reduce the level of teacher absence, the pressures would still be immense and school leaders, many of whom have barely had a day off for 18 months, would be in significant danger of falling over. Running essentially two schools – one online and one in person – is incredibly hard.

All this is even before we consider the extra safeguarding pressure likely to mount in the aftermath of the recent death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, for schools identify and then support the thousands of students who have dropped out of sight while the grown-ups have been battling Covid.

Just as with the NHS, the school system constantly runs at capacity, and – also like hospitals – schools are reliant on their staff’s willingness to work far in excess of their contractual demands in incredibly tough circumstances. It’s a pressure cooker that in normal times normally just about keeps its lid on. Covid has tested this high-tension system almost to destruction several times in the last few months. The question is, will Omicron go one step further?

Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First

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