The Department for Education is looking to former teachers to help fill Covid staffing shortages, with new guidance planned to boost supply staff numbers.
With new reported Covid cases hitting a record high on Wednesday as Omicron spreads, fears are growing over schools’ ability to cope when term resumes in January.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has written to school and college leaders today setting out how they can help “manage the virus”, including urging them to reach out to former colleagues.
The message acknowledges the availability of supply staff is a “particular issue” in areas with high absences. The government is now considering new measures to “boost supply capacity”, Zahawi said.
“We will work with sector leaders and supply agencies over the coming days to offer advice to ex-teachers who want to provide support to schools and colleges.
“We will help them to register with supply agencies as the best way to boost the temporary workforce available to the sector.”
Zahawi said discussions had already begun between senior DfE officials and key stakeholders.
He also said leaders themselves could “support this effort” by using their own networks to “encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help”.
Discussions are also underway over sharing “best practice flexible curriculum delivery” for schools facing the most acute workforce problems.
The letter said take-up of the booster jab by staff and young people was “critical” too.
‘Unlikely to solve the problem’
Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said it welcomed “anything which may help” tackle staff shortages.
But he warned it was “very late in the day” and the appeal would need to be “well publicised, promoted and supported”.
Barton added: “Even then it is very unlikely to be enough to solve a problem at such a scale as this.”
Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, also said it would take “several weeks to ensure all safeguarding checks are in place” for such staff.
“These are weeks that school leaders do not have if they are to enjoy any form of break over Christmas.”
The government had already announced the extension of its Covid workforce fund earlier on Thursday, signalling worries over continued disruption well into the new year.
The fund, which schools can use to pay for supply staff or extra hours for part-time workers, will now be open until the February half-term.
Former chief inspector Michael Wilshaw was among the teachers taking up the call to return to classrooms in the first lockdown. But one recently retired teacher, speaking anonymously, said full classrooms were not safe for retirees.
Pressure on DfE to tackle staffing gaps
Ministers have come under increasing pressure to ramp up measures to prevent further partial school closures after refusing to guarantee classrooms will remain fully open.
Yesterday education select committee chair Robert Halfon raised an urgent question in the House of Commons over a lack of support for schools. He said the country seemed to be “moving sadly towards de facto school closures”.
He asked why there was a “nationwide campaign for an army of NHS volunteers, but not for education? Why is a similar army for retired teachers or Ofsted inspectors not being recruited to support schools struggling with staffing requirements?”
Some schools have already closed early for Christmas and dozens moved some classes online because of staffing problems, with teachers sick or isolating.
The DfE estimates that 2.4 per cent of teachers and school leaders were absent from open schools last Thursday, up from 2 per cent two weeks prior. Primary teachers were more likely to be absent due to Covid.
Barton said “many schools” had been experiencing problems securing supply staff because of high demand.