Staff absence: Schools screaming for more financial support as Covid infections soar

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

A teaching assistant looking after 90 pupils in the school hall. An untrained cover supervisor teaching a full timetable. The Covid staffing crisis is worsening significantly with schools screaming for more financial support.

Official attendance figures published on Tuesday (January 11) are concerning (DfE, 2022). They show that 4.9 per cent of teachers and school leaders – around 25,000 colleagues – were off due to Covid (infections and self-isolation) on January 6.

This is up from three per cent just before Christmas and includes around 20,000 with a confirmed case.

Furthermore, five per cent of teaching assistants and other support staff – around 35,000 colleagues – were also off on January 6 (up from 2.3 per cent pre-Christmas). This includes 27,000 or so (3.9 per cent) with a confirmed case.

Further evidence of the staffing crisis emerged from two snapshot surveys from the NASUWT and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

Around 7,000 teachers responded to the NASUWT survey, which found that 46 per cent of teachers are having to cover for absent colleagues while 84 per cent said staff absence was having an impact on teaching and learning.

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “Higher rates of staff absence are making a very challenging situation much worse for schools struggling to maintain appropriate staffing levels without disrupting pupils’ education.”

A snapshot NAHT poll on the first day of term last week garnered 2,000 responses from school leaders in England and found that 36 per cent had more than 10 per cent of their total staff absent due to Covid; 27 per cent had more than 10 per cent of their teaching staff off.

Worryingly, nine per cent had more than 20 per cent of their teaching staff absent due to Covid.

Half of the respondents were using supply teachers to cover classes due to absence, but 37 per cent said they were unable to source the supply staff they need, even via agencies.

General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “Many schools are teetering on the edge and the next few weeks at least will undoubtedly continue to be an incredibly challenging time.

“School leaders are having to make difficult decisions while faced with conflicting priorities. The government’s clear priority that schools should be kept open is understood. The crisis in available resources will mean that school leaders and their teams will require the unflinching support of government to achieve this. School leaders need to be free to arrange the delivery of education according to the resources available to them, not on the basis of the normal school week.”

The DfE's Covid-19 workforce fund has been re-introduced to provide financial support to "settings with the greatest staffing and funding challenges". The fund has been extended to help eligible schools cover the cost of workforce absences experienced from November 22 until the spring half-term in February (DfE, 2021).

However, school leaders have already said that the fund does not offer enough support and the support that is on offer is dependent on “a maze of eligibility criteria”.

In an open letter to schools last week, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi urged headteachers to prioritise face-to-face learning and use “all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible”.

However, support staff union UNISON is concerned that underpaid, untrained staff are at risk of being exploited. Instead, it is demanding sufficient funding for schools to support staffing costs.

The union reported examples of staff who have been asked to take on duties for which they are not trained or paid. Examples include a teaching assistant looking after whole year groups – of up to 90 pupils – in the school hall and a cover supervisor on £14,000 a year who had “a full teacher’s timetable” despite not being trained or paid for these duties.

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Schools should remain open to all and maintain face-to-face education. But this shouldn’t be at any cost. Unsafe practices and inappropriate arrangements to cover for teachers aren’t the way to protect education.
"Merging classes during a pandemic undermines everything schools have done to try to limit the virus spread. The education benefits are minimal when classrooms are overcrowded and health risks to pupils and staff increase.”

The only response from government this week was an announcement that initial data from one in 10 supply agencies shows that 485 retired teachers have responded to its call to come back to the classroom to support schools during the crisis. A further 100 Teach First alumni have also “expressed an interest”. However, how many of those have cleared background checks and are actually teaching in the classroom is not reported.


Schools continue to call for action on ventilation

The staffing crisis and rising levels of student absence due to Covid have led to repeated pleas for more to be done on ventilation in the classroom.

The government confirmed on January 2 that 7,000 air-cleaning units were to be sent to schools. Schools applying for these need to show “sustained high CO2 readings”. It comes on top of 1,000 such units for special schools and alternative provision settings and 350,000 CO2 monitors.

However, it is clear that this is not enough to tackle the problems schools face with ventilation during the cold winter months.

The NASUWT survey found that only 44 per cent of the 7,000 teachers who responded said their school had a plan in place for deploying CO2 monitors.

A separate NASUWT survey of 2,000 teachers also found that 56 per cent do not have access to a CO2 monitor in their classroom. Of those who do have access to one, 34 per cent reported CO2 levels often or sometimes exceeding 1,500ppm – the level above which action is required according to government guidance.

Dr Roach added: “It is disturbing that teachers tell us that in some schools there is no effective system in place for deploying CO2 monitors in classrooms. Urgent additional investment is needed in providing air filtration units to every classroom where they are needed. Ensuring good ventilation is vital to minimising further disruption to pupils’ education.

“Inviting schools to bid for the limited number of air purifiers that are being made available by the government is simply not good enough. The safety of pupils and staff in classrooms should not be a lottery.”

The student absent figures for January 6 show that 3.9 per cent (315,000) were absent due to Covid, up from 301,000 before Christmas. This includes 159,000 with a confirmed case.

It means that attendance in primary schools stands at 91 per cent. It is 85.9 per cent in secondary schools and 82 per cent in special schools.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said any hopes that Christmas would act as a firebreak for schools had “evaporated”.

He continued: “The costs of bringing in the supply staff needed to maintain learning is crippling for schools and colleges and the government needs to step in to help, as well as providing more support on ventilation.”

  • DfE: Week 2: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, January 2022: https://bit.ly/35DM7Aw
  • DfE: Guidance: Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, last updated January 2, 2022: https://bit.ly/3eGCaHm
  • DfE: Guidance: Coronavirus (Covid-19) workforce fund to support schools with costs of staff absences, December 2021: https://bit.ly/3toSV1g
  • DfE: How to apply for a DfE-funded air cleaning unit: https://bit.ly/3qSimVZ


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