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Schools ‘teetering on the edge’ as new poll reveals significant levels of staff absence on first day of term

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Today (Friday 7 Jan), school leaders’ union NAHT releases the results of a snap poll of its members on the first day of term.

The survey received nearly 2,000 responses from school leaders in England, who reported significant levels of staff absence.

  • More than a third (36%) said they had more than 10% of their total staff absent on the first day of term due to Covid-related reasons.
  • More than a quarter (27%) said they had more than 10% of their teaching staff absent on the first day of term due to Covid-related reasons.  Worryingly, almost 1 in 10 (9%) said they had more than 20% of their teaching staff absent.
  • 95% had pupils absent for Covid-related reasons. Almost a third (29%) said they had more than 10% of their pupils absent for Covid-related reasons.
  • Half (50%) said they are using supply teachers to cover classes due to absence, but over a third (37%) said they were unable to source the supply staff they need, even via agencies.
  • Less than 7% reported combining classes or year groups. Only 4% reported having to send classes or year groups home.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, 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.

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

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“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. 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.

“School leaders need to know that their decisions will be backed by government. They have proved time and again that they are worthy of the nation’s trust. Inspection, unnecessary assessment and the use of league tables are an unhelpful impediment during this moment of crisis.”

Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, responding to NAHT’s poll showing a third of schools had more than 10% of their staff absent due to Covid on the first day of term, said:

“These stark figures reveal the extent of the government’s failure to plan for school staff absences this term. The government has no plan to prevent nor to manage thousands of staff being off school due to Covid.

“Ventilation, vaccination and testing are key to keeping schools running but the government’s chaotic, mismanagement means tests aren’t available, only half of eligible pupils have been vaccinated, and children are being left to learn in coats next to open windows as temperatures plummet.

“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.”

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