A maze of eligibility criteria: Anger at Covid workforce fund limitations

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

After having battled with Covid-related staff absence for much of the term, schools have been hit by the news that the newly re-opened workforce fund will only cover a short period before Christmas.

Furthermore, school leaders have slammed the fact that this funding will once again be dependent on “a maze of eligibility criteria”.

The Covid Workforce Fund is once again offering financial support to schools struggling with the cost of supply and cover during the pandemic (DfE, 2021a).

However, the Department for Education (DfE) has decreed that the fund will only cover the period from November 22 until the end of term, despite schools having struggled with staff absence for much of the autumn term.

The latest attendance figures (DfE, 2021b) show that two per cent of all teachers and school leaders in England were off for Covid-related reasons on November 25. This is up from 1.4 per cent on November 11.

Meanwhile, 1.9 per cent of all teaching assistants and other support staff were off on November 25 – also up from 1.4 per cent.

But the problems have been on-going for some time. In October, an ASCL survey of 567 schools (primary, middle, secondary, and special) and colleges in England, found that 95 per cent said teaching and learning had been affected by Covid-related pupil and staff absence – with 31 per cent saying the impact was severe. Staff absence was at more than 10 per cent in 63 of the schools, while respondents reported that rates charged by agencies to hire supply staff were higher than normal.

Schools are fearful that the new omicron variant will only make matters worse. It comes as pupil absence is rising sharply again after a very brief respite during half-term.

The attendance figures show that on November 25, 208,000 pupils were off school for Covid reasons (2.6 per cent), including 106,000 who had Covid and 79,000 who had a suspected case. This compares to the 130,000 who were off school two weeks earlier on November 11.

Attendance in state-funded primary schools is now down to 91.1 per cent, while in state-funded secondary schools it has dropped to 87.5 per cent.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is clear from these figures that the reduction in Covid-related pupil and staff absence after half-term has been short-lived and that this disruption has risen very sharply once again.

“Schools are also having to cope with an increased rate of staff absence which makes the demands of delivering simultaneous in-class and remote education to different groups of pupils even more challenging.

“The emergence of the Omicron variant seems likely to make this situation worse.”

Mr Barton bemoaned the complexity of the re-opened workforce fund. The guidance (DfE, 2021a) includes a long list of prerequisite criteria, financial reserves criteria and workforce criteria.

For example: “Schools will be eligible for this additional funding if their reserves at the end of the funding year are down to a level of no more than four per cent of their annual income.”

And: “Schools must reach either of the absence thresholds set out to be eligible. This means either an initial threshold of 20 per cent, or a lower threshold of 10 per cent if absence levels are long-term. Costs can only be claimed for absences above, not at, the threshold.”

Mr Barton commented: “Many schools and colleges are footing huge extra costs for supply cover for staff who are absent because of Covid, and this situation is likely to worsen as a result of the Omicron variant.

“We are disappointed that the window for claims is so short. Schools and colleges have been experiencing these shortages for many weeks now and they are likely to continue for some time to come.

“We are also disappointed that access to this funding is dependent on a similar maze of eligibility criteria as that applied last time it was available for a limited period last year. The workforce fund should be available for as long as needed rather than for short windows of time and this support should come without so many conditions attached.”

There is further anger this week after the government emailed schools on Friday (November 26) to tell them to prepare to provide Covid testing for their pupils on-site on return in January. However, the email only gave schools two working days to arrange to order sufficient test kits.

Writing in SecEd – our sister magazine – on Monday (November 29), Mr Barton said the government’s approach was a “foot-dragging, penny-pinching muddle”.

On the on-site testing request, he added: “It means that schools are therefore once again left with the job of organising and staffing Covid testing stations – something which should be a public health responsibility rather than the remit of educators.

“That is not an argument against on-site testing. On the contrary. Providing on-site testing at the beginning of a term, or even half-term, seems like a logical and sensible approach to detecting asymptomatic cases following the mixing which takes place in holiday periods.

“It is one of those measures which it may well be necessary to turn on at various points for a long time to come. The point is that this makes it particularly important that it is sustainable and properly resourced.”

Elsewhere this week, the government updated its Covid-19 operational guidance for schools to recommend once again face masks in communal areas in all schools for adults and for pupils from year 7 upwards. Also, all individuals who have been identified as a close contact of a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, irrespective of vaccination status and age, will be asked to self-isolate immediately (DfE, 2021c).

Mr Barton has called on the DfE to do “much more to publicly promote the importance of twice-weekly lateral flow home testing among eligible pupils”.

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