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Schools in England ‘teetering on the edge’ with staff Covid absences

Schools in England are “teetering on the edge” with more than a third (36%) struggling with staff absence rates in excess of 10%, according to a snap poll by a headteachers’ union.

Almost one in 10 heads (9%) who took part in the survey said more than 20% of their teaching staff were absent on the first day of term for Covid-related reasons.

The staffing situation is already so critical in some schools that 4% of heads have had to send classes or year groups home for online learning, while almost 7% have combined classes or year groups in response to teacher absence.

Half of school leaders said they were already dependent on supply teachers to cover classes, and more than a third (37%) were unable to source the supply staff they need, even via agencies – almost certainly because of high demand.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the results of the poll painted a worrying picture.

The findings are based on nearly 2,000 headteachers’ experiences on the first day of term this week. The vast majority who took part were primary school leaders (76%), 5% were from secondary schools and the rest were made up of nursery, infant, all-through and middle schools.

More than a quarter (27%) had in excess of 10% of their teachers off on the first day of term for Covid-related reasons. Nearly all of those surveyed (95%) reported pupil absences, and three in 10 (29%) were missing 10% of their pupils.

“Staff absence on the first day of term was considerable and school leaders have been doing what they can to redeploy teachers and other support staff to avoid being forced to combine classes or send groups home,” Whiteman said.

“Given that this is a snapshot of just the first day of term, this is a very worrying picture. Infection rates – and therefore absence due to illness – could very likely rise as the term progresses, and already half of schools are having to turn to supply staff, with many finding they cannot secure suitable cover.

“Many schools are teetering on the edge and the next few weeks at least will undoubtedly continue to be an incredibly challenging time.”

The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “These stark figures reveal the extent of the government’s failure to plan for school staff absences this term.

“Again and again our children have been treated as an afterthought by Conservative ministers, seemingly unable to act until it’s too late. It is incompetent, complacent and inadequate.”

Elsewhere, there were reports of resistance among some pupils to masks and lateral flow testing. Damien McNulty, a national executive member of the NASUWT teaching union, told the BBC that in one Lancashire school, just 67 out of 1,300 pupils had agreed to have a lateral flow test and wear a mask.

Teachers also remain concerned about ventilation in schools. In a separate NASUWT survey, more than half (56%) of the 2,000 who responded said they did not have access to a CO2 monitor in their classroom, despite government promises that all schools and colleges would be provided with monitors from the start of the current academic year. Of those who do have a monitor, 9% said it was not working properly.

The government has said it wants schools to remain fully open despite soaring infection rates. The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, conceded in the Commons on Wednesday that schools were already seeing staff absences and these were likely to get worse in the coming weeks, exceeding last term’s 8% peak.

A Department for Education spokesperson 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.

“We’ve also asked schools to have contingency plans to maximise attendance and minimise disruption to learning, should they have high rates of staff absence, and are working with the sector to share case studies of flexible learning models to support the development of those plans.”

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