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Using support staff to cover for teachers isolating with Covid is wrong, says UNISON


@UNISONtheunion warns that Government guidance for schools increases Covid risk and threatens learning

Using support staff to cover for teachers isolating with #Covid is the wrong approach to dealing with the school staffing crisis and ensuring pupils’ education continues, says UNISON today (Monday).

This week, the Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance encouraging schools to use support staff “more flexibly” as children return after the Christmas break.

UNISON recognises that the rapid spread of Omicron is causing high numbers of staff absences in schools and that learning must continue for pupils. However, the union says using low-waged employees as teachers on the cheap amounts to exploitation and is inappropriate.

Ministers have also asked schools to consider “combining classes”, but UNISON says this could put staff and pupils at risk by increasing virus transmission and may disrupt education.

Now the union is calling on the government to provide schools with sufficient funding so they are appropriately staffed, and for urgent additional measures such as short periods of online learning to manage high staff absence rates. Without government action, UNISON warns that schools may be unable to protect pupils from harm because of unsafe staffing levels.

Teaching assistants and support staff have faced unprecedented pressure to cover for absent teachers since the start of the pandemic. UNISON has been contacted by some who have had to take whole classes at short notice and without the necessary training including:  

  • A teaching assistant looking after whole year groups (90 pupils) in the school hall
  • A cover supervisor on £14,000 a year who had ‘a full teacher’s timetable’ despite not being trained or paid for these duties

The union is advising support staff not to agree to unsafe practices such as inappropriate cover arrangements.

Jon Richards, Unison

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards said:

“Schools should remain open to all and maintain face-to-face education.

“But this shouldn’t be at any cost. Unsafe practices and inappropriate arrangements to cover for teachers aren’t the way to protect education.

“Merging classes during a pandemic undermines everything schools have done to try to limit the virus spread.  The education benefits are minimal when classrooms are overcrowded, and health risks to pupils and staff increase.  

“Pupils deserve the best quality education, but this can only be achieved with the right measures in place. Ministers must do everything in their power to keep schools, pupils and staff safe.” 

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