Wreaking havoc: Staff Covid-related absence hitting teaching and learning

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

Increasing levels of staff absence due to Covid continue to wreak havoc in schools, with budgets at breaking point and the majority of heads warning that teaching and learning is suffering.

With some schools reporting staff absences of more than 10 per cent, the high cost of supply cover and challenges in even sourcing supply staff are hitting hard.

A survey of 567 schools (primary, middle, secondary, and special) and colleges in England, published by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), found that 95 per cent said teaching and learning had been affected by Covid-related pupil and staff absence during the autumn term so far – with 31 per cent saying the impact was severe.

Covid-related pupil absence is currently running at more than 10 per cent in 93 of the schools, the survey found, while staff absence is at more than 10 per cent in 63.

Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of the schools said it was more difficult than normal to hire supply staff to cover for staff absence and 23 per cent said that rates charged by agencies to hire supply staff were higher than normal.

Headteachers responding to the survey gave a sobering insight into just how stark the situation is.

One said: “At times we have really struggled to maintain face-to-face teaching.”

Another added: “We are close to the point of not being able to operate for every year group if staff absence continues.”

And a third said: ““Pupil disruption is at an all-time high. Some in, some out – (it) makes it much harder to support remotely and face-to-face.”

It comes as the latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE, 2021) estimates that 209,000 pupils – 2.6 per cent of the student population – were absent for Covid-related reasons last week. This is up from 204,000 (2.5 per cent) a fortnight previously.

The figures include 81,000 pupils with suspected Covid (down from 84,000) and 111,000 pupils with a confirmed case of Covid (up from 102,000).

They come as the latest data from the ONS Covid Infection Survey (for October 15) shows that infection is now being driven by teenagers, with the percentage of people testing positive highest for those in years 7 to 11 (8.1 per cent).

This compares to infection rates of 3.1 per cent in years 2 to 6 and 1.1 per cent for young adults (year 12 to age 24).

Meanwhile, the DfE’s figures show that an estimated 1.8 per cent of teachers and school leaders in state schools were absent for Covid-related reasons last week, up from 1.7 per cent a fortnight ago, while 1.6 per cent of teaching assistants and other staff were absent (up from 1.5 per cent).

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said that Covid is continuing to cause educational havoc and that “life is most definitely not back to normal in our schools and colleges”.

He said: “The impact of coronavirus is an everyday reality which continues to cause havoc to the education of children and young people and places leaders and their staff under enormous pressure.”

Commenting on the DfE’s latest figures regarding staff absence, Mr Barton added: “The rise in staff absence may appear fractional but the reality is that it is now causing real headaches, with staffing problems further disrupting education. This is happening despite staff being vaccinated, with the issue exacerbated by an acute shortage of suitably qualified supply staff.”

ASCL has called on the government to do more to support the roll-out of the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds, which has been beset by delays and anti-vax protests and is running behind schedule.

Mr Barton continued: “The key to bringing levels of Covid infection back under control in our schools and colleges is clearly the vaccination programme but it has not been happening fast enough. It was painfully slow to get underway in some areas and has been beset by logistical problems, not to mention being disrupted by the irresponsible actions of anti-vaccination protestors.”

He said that more must be done to “encourage regular home-testing among eligible pupils and invest in high-quality ventilation systems” in schools and pointed to the roll-out of carbon dioxide monitors in schools which he said has been “far too slow”.

He also called for more funding from Westminster: “The high level of on-going disruption again emphasises the pressing need for the chancellor to vastly improve funding for education recovery in his forthcoming Budget.

“School budgets are also taking a hammering because of the cost of hiring supply staff to cover for absence and the government must provide additional funding to help with these costs.”

Another headteacher responding to the survey summed up the feeling on the ground: “This half term has certainly felt much more challenging than this time last year. Things are far from normal currently in schools and it does feel like we are being left to do our best to survive.”

  • DfE: Week 42: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, October 19, 2021: https://bit.ly/35DM7Aw
  • ONS: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey, UK: 15 October 2021: https://bit.ly/3aVTZiG

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