Staff shortages could force schools in England to send some pupils home
Severe staff shortages could undermine the government’s efforts to keep pupils in schools, with headteachers in England saying that they may be forced to send some children home if they cannot muster enough staff.
Despite a pledge by Boris Johnson to avoid a repeat of January 2021, when the government insisted schools would remain open only for them to be closed after an abrupt U-turn, school leaders are warning that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant could lead to mass absences for teachers and other members of staff when schools reopen for the new year.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC that staff absences had been at “unsustainable” levels at some schools, with up to 25% of staff off in the week leading up to the Christmas break.
“We don’t know what next week will look like. We’re not catastrophising that but we are saying we must have a sense of realism around this,” he said.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it would be “naive” to think Omicron would not have an impact on schools when they reopen. “It does seem as though choppy waters lie ahead and that some form of disruption at the start of next term is looking sadly inevitable.”
Barton said he “absolutely agrees” with the government’s guidance allowing schools to restrict attendance only as a last resort, but argued that school leaders would need to make difficult choices if there were widespread staff absences.
“The problem is that if you are running a primary school, and you have got 20 staff and seven of them can’t come in next week, and the pool of supply teachers that you would normally call upon – that is, people have got a relationship with your school and therefore will come and step in at the last minute or a supply agency that will charge you money for doing that at a higher rate – that pool is limited,” Barton said.
“You will find yourself in a very difficult position of perhaps trying to teach two classes at once in the hall, stuff which will not be good for the quality of education, or you will be in the position of making a decision about whether some year groups should be in school while some aren’t.”
Barton said secondary school leaders could be faced with the dilemma of prioritising classroom teaching for year groups taking exams ahead of teaching for others, “because GCSEs and A-levels really need to go ahead if possible this year”.
Last week the Department for Education launched a public relations campaign to encourage former teachers in England to sign up with supply agencies, with the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, urging people “to come forward if they are available to temporarily fill absences in schools and colleges in the new year.”
The Daily Telegraph reported that DfE sources were unable to confirm how many had actually signed up with agencies so far, but that it was “at least hundreds”.
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