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Schools in England ‘teetering on edge’ from Covid-related absences

More than a third of schools had at least 10 per cent of staff absent on the first day of term this week, as headteachers in England warned they were “teetering on the edge” as a result of pandemic-related staff shortages.

According to a survey released on Friday by the National Association of Head Teachers, 37 per cent of schools said they were unable to source enough supply teachers to cover absences, leaving other members of staff overstretched and forcing some schools to send year groups home or close completely.

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

“Infection rates — and therefore absence due to illness — could very likely rise as the term progresses,” he added.

After the new Omicron coronavirus variant tore through the UK over the Christmas period, schools in England were braced for widespread disruption when term began on Tuesday.

Education minister Nadhim Zahawi has insisted schools should do “everything in [their] power” to make sure face-to-face teaching goes ahead, and on Wednesday he gave parliament his “assurance” that GCSE and A-level exams would take place as planned this summer.

But he also acknowledged in-person learning would be “impossible” in some cases and encouraged schools to adopt “flexible” approaches such as combining classes or moving some online in order to keep learning going. The government has also issued a call for former teachers to sign up with supply agencies to help cover shortages.

While unions welcomed more flexibility for schools, they argued the government should do more to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the classroom.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, said Zahawi was “bowing before the inevitable” in suggesting that some learning could move online.

While the Department for Education had purchased up to 8,000 air-filtration units for classrooms, for example, this fell short of what was needed for almost 25,000 schools in England, he said.

Whiteman called on the government to offer “unflinching support” to school leaders who would have to “make difficult decisions whilst faced with conflicting priorities” and scarce resources.

“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,” he added.

According to the NAHT survey, under 7 per cent of schools said they combined classes or year groups in response to shortages, and 4 per cent said they had to send classes or year groups home.

Almost one in 10 said they had more than 20 per cent of their teaching staff absent.

The education department said: “We’ve supported schools to continue classroom learning for pupils through encouraging former teachers to step in and extending the Covid workforce fund for schools that are facing the greatest staffing and funding pressures.”

The opposition Labour party said the “stark figures” demonstrated an “incompetent, complacent and inadequate” response from government.

“The government has no plan to prevent nor to manage thousands of staff being off school due to Covid,” said Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary.

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