Schools ‘teetering on the edge’ with one in three having staff absence levels of over 10%

By Ethan Shone
Friday, 7th January 2022, 8:12 am
Updated Friday, 7th January 2022, 8:51 am
Covid: schools ‘teetering on the edge’ with one in three having staff absence levels of over 10% (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Covid: schools ‘teetering on the edge’ with one in three having staff absence levels of over 10% (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

More than one in three headteachers are reporting staff absence levels of 10% or more due to Covid-related reasons, a new survey suggests. 

Staff shortages have left many schools “teetering on the edge” according to the head of a school leaders’ union.

'Teetering on the edge'

Staffing shortages caused by the pandemic are a major problem for schools in England, a new snap poll of nearly 2000 school leaders in England by the school leaders’ union NAHT has found.

36% reported more than 10% of their overall staff being absent, while 27% said they had more than 10% of their teachers absent and almost one in ten (9%) said that more than a fifth of their teaching staff were absent.

General secretary of the NAHT, Paul Whiteman, said: “Schools are doing everything they can to maintain education for pupils in the face of very challenging circumstances.

“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.

“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.”

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

Schools require 'unflinching' government support

The poll also found that on the first week back after the Christmas break, a majority (95%) have pupils off for Covid-19-related reasons, and 29% said they had more than 10% of their students absent.

While half the teachers reported using substitute teachers to plug the gaps left by absences, of those 37% said they are struggling to source the staff they need. 

Whiteman added: “School leaders are having to make difficult decisions whilst 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.”

The Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has called for teachers to combine classes as a result of staffing shortages, though unions have criticised this suggestion.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools across the country reopened this week and staff are working tirelessly to ensure classrooms are safe for face-to-face learning, and despite the challenges in this first week of term, millions of pupils have returned to be with their friends and teachers.

“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.”