Published on January 12, 2022
Written by The Daily Mail
More than a third of schools have at least one in 10 teachers absent due to Covid reasons, as some students refuse to wear masks in class or take tests, unions revealed a few days ago.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said schools so far are largely managing staff absences well, but that education chiefs have warned of trickier times ahead.
A survey by the union found one in three school leaders are experiencing staff absence levels of over 10 percent as a result of soaring Omicron cases.
A majority (95 percent) have at least some pupils off for Covid-related reasons at the start of term – and 29 percent said they had more than 10 percent of their students absent.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has admitted that staff absences are likely to rise in schools in the weeks ahead, amid warnings that heads should prepare for as many as one in four absences.
Mr Whiteman told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: ‘Our members are doing everything they possibly can to keep the show on the road and to make sure face-to-face education continues.
‘Our survey of 2,000 school leaders this week tells us more than a third have 10 percent or more of their staff away for Covid reasons at the moment, but they’re managing that reasonably well, with only seven percent of those having to collapse classes into larger classes, and just four percent sending children home.
‘That’s on absence rates of about 10 percent, and the government is warning everybody to expect absence rates of about 25 percent, so it’s going to be incredibly difficult.
‘But yet again what we can see is school leaders and their teams stepping up and rising to the challenge.’
The findings came as pupils are returning to class this week after the Christmas break, with new advice for secondary school and college students in England to wear face coverings in classrooms.
However, a number of children are refusing to do so, according to another education union.
Damien McNulty, a national executive member of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), told the BBC just five percent of pupils a one school agreed to take a lateral flow test at the start of the term and wear a mask.
‘Sadly, we have had reports in the last 24 hours of at least six secondary schools in the north-west of England where children, in huge numbers, are refusing to take lateral flow tests or to wear masks,’ he said.
‘We’ve got one school in Lancashire where only 67 children out of 1,300 are prepared to have a lateral flow test and wear masks. This is a public health emergency.’
NAHT chief Mr Whiteman also called for an easing of pressures from government and Ofsted with regards to inspections while schools deal with staff shortages.
‘One of the things we need from government is a clear statement, that there’ll be a clear permissive approach from them in empowering school leaders to make these decisions,’ he said.
‘[That could be] redeploying staff to different classrooms, having non-subject-specialists in front of classes if need be and removing those unnecessary pressures of inspection and assessment tests.
‘Measuring schools in the normal way just isn’t appropriate and they still have all of those pressures right now, when down to very limited staffing.’
It comes after MPs yesterday urged ministers to ‘get a grip’ on the teaching unions and stop them putting children in a ‘pandemic straitjacket’ after members were told to dismiss Government guidance and impose their own stricter rules.
The National Education Union has urged headteachers not to combine classes if there are staff absences – despite Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi telling them to, it has emerged.
Government guidance also states that pupils should only stay home if they have tested positive for Covid or have symptoms.
But union chiefs have told teachers to extend this to students who have a family member who is ill with the virus. These children can only return when they have received a negative PCR result.
The NEU’s document is backed by the National Association of Schoolmasters as well as Unite, GMB and Unison, who also represent teachers and staff.
Prominent Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen, who represents North West Leicestershire, said: ‘Who is speaking up for the children? Nadhim Zahawi needs to get a grip and have a strong word with the unions and remind them that they are working in public service.’
Liz Cole of the parent campaign group UsForThem told the Telegraph: ‘It’s incredible to see these unions suggest something that goes so far beyond what the Government has required for schools. This is desperately unfair to children and plunges them back into a pandemic straitjacket.’
Conservative MP Steve Brine, a Tory MP said: ‘This is the drip, drip of getting some people to the place they always wanted to be and it’s the children who lose out. As we are seeing with schools and we’ve seen throughout other areas, it’s not the law and the rules which do the damage, it’s the signals sent. Ministers give an inch and a mile is taken.’
The Department for Education (DfE) suggested ‘combining classes’, and said teachers infected with Covid could ‘deliver lessons from home’, which are then streamed to pupils in supervised classrooms.
But a NEU briefing document seen says that this should not happen because it will ‘increase virus transmission’ and teachers should not be ‘routinely expected’ to teach classes, other than their own.
The document says: ‘Cover is not an effective use of a teacher’s time and collapsing/combining classes is not only cover, but increasing the numbers of pupils in classrooms, or having large numbers of pupils in halls, will also only serve to increase transmission of the virus.’
On Sunday, an email from the DfE advised headteachers that they may wish to use existing teaching, temporary and support staff ‘more flexibly’ where required to ensure schools remain open amid staffing issues.
It added: ‘As pupils do not need to be kept in consistent groups, you may wish to consider combining classes.’
Pupils are returning to class this week, with new advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face masks in lessons due to a rise in Covid-19 cases.
Secondary school and college students are also being encouraged to test on site before returning to class.
Ian Bauckham, the chair of Ofqual, has suggested that schools may need to suspend ‘specialist’ subjects like music to cope with staff absences.
In a case study posted on a DfE portal for heads, Mr Bauckham added that two or more classes could be ‘combined and taught by a single teacher’ in a larger space as an alternative to remote learning in the event of high staff absences.
He wrote: ‘Where pupils in a year group are in any case in contact with each other in different classes for different subjects, or in informal social time, then it should not be a concern to bring classes together as envisaged here.’
But the coalition of education unions says measures to ‘minimise mixing’ – such as keeping groups as consistent as possible – should be reintroduced in schools, and whole year group assemblies should be avoided.
A spokeswoman for the NEU said: ‘There are established ways of coping when teachers are absent. These include employing supply staff and for shorter periods asking HLTAs (higher level teaching assistants) to take classes.
‘All of these routes must be exhausted before there is any consideration of mixing classes. There are clear risks with combining classes leading to more mixing, more spread of the virus and therefore more disruption.
‘Practically this is also not a solution open to all schools. England has one of the most overcrowded school sites in the developed world. There is simply not the space in many school buildings to combine classes.
‘Education staff are already in greater danger of being infected by Covid-19 than any other profession.
‘Government should be doing everything it can to suppress Covid-19 transmission in schools, not making recommendations which are likely to lead to greater spread of the virus and more education disruption.’
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