Omicron battle looms as pupils return to schools

Staff shortages bite as few returner teachers reach classroom, Freddie Whittaker and James Carr report

Staff shortages bite as few returner teachers reach classroom, Freddie Whittaker and James Carr report

Long read

Pupils across England returned to school this week as cases of the Omicron Covid variant continue to surge.

One-third of schools had more than one in ten staff off already, with warnings that absence rates will continue to rise.

While most schools have opened, using strategies such as setting up “internal supply agencies”, over one-third have been unable to source cover from stretched agencies.

Meanwhile, some supply firms say the government’s call to arms for retired teachers to plug the gaps is making little impact. Schools Week investigates…

‘Many schools are teetering on the edge’

While official government figures are yet to be released on staff absences, Schools Week has found seven schools and trusts reporting around ten per cent of staff absent this week.

Nadhim Zahawi said staff absences of about eight per cent were reported at the end of last year, but warned “that’s probably likely to rise with increasing cases in school”.

An NAHT survey of around 2,000 leaders found 36 per cent reported more than ten per cent of their total staff absent on the first day of term.

A quarter reported more than ten per cent of their teaching staff absent on the first day – with nine per cent warning they had one in five teachers absent.

England’s biggest trust, United Learning, reported “at least a couple of hundred staff off” this week, equating to around three per cent. Chief executive Sir Jon Coles said it was an area on which “everyone is concerned”.

Arbor, a school management information system provider for over 1,600 schools and 200 trusts, found disruption is “unevenly distributed”. While some schools are reporting relatively low staff absences, the worst-hit have up to 27 per cent of staff absent because of Covid.

Covid absence attendance leadership Omicron
Paul Whiteman

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Many schools are teetering on the edge and the next few weeks at least will undoubtedly continue to be an incredibly challenging time.”

Arbor statistics found around 3.3 per cent of pupils were absent this week due to Covid.

The number of schools reporting at least one positive Covid case upon return has also increased – from 69 per cent at the end of last term to 82 per cent.

The government has advised schools to take a “flexible approach”, with “combining classes” flagged as a solution. 

However, five education unions – the NEU, NASUWT, UNISON, GMB and Unite – plan to challenge schools following such advice, which they say will only “increase virus transmission”.

A case study on flexible learning published by the government from academy leader Ian Bauckham, also chair of Ofqual, suggested “temporarily” suspending the teaching of subjects such as music or PHSE in order to ease pressures.

Schools run ‘internal supply agencies’

Schools hit hardest by staff shortages have been forced to partially close this week and request certain year groups stay home. 

Outwood Academy in Ormesby, Middlesbrough, closed to pupils in Year 9 and 10 on Wednesday, while nearby Outwood Bydales closed for Year 10.

An Oasis Community Learning school in Birmingham was also partially closed.

Active Learning Trust has established an “internal supply agency” to safeguard against future disruption. Chief executive Stephen Chamberlain explained the trust will use its central team to plug gaps, with around eight qualified teachers ready to take over lessons and an additional 20 capable of filling support staff and data admin roles.

He added: “I’ve cancelled all other stuff at the moment and said we’re an internal supply agency. We all live close to one of our hubs… we will deploy to whichever school is needed.”

Tim Marston headteacher at Wreake Valley and The Roundhill academies in Leicester, uses a staffing model where all staff have “capacity within their timetable to teach one extra lesson”.

Around ten per cent of the schools’ teachers were absent this week, but the model allowed them to cover lessons without using supply teachers.

Schools reporting low staff absences this term often pointed to high rates of Covid absences before the Christmas break and large portions of staff testing positive over Christmas.

‘There aren’t any supply teachers’

Half of respondents to the NAHT survey said they are using supply teachers to cover absences, but 37 per cent said they were unable to source the staff they needed.


Vic Goddard, chief executive at Passmores Co-operative Learning Community in Essex, warned: “There aren’t any ̶ you simply can’t get supply teachers.”

This was especially problematic at primary level where smaller staff numbers meant it was difficult to provide cover internally, he said.

Andy Byers, headteacher of Framwellgate School in Durham, had to contact numerous new agencies to find cover. Ten per cent of teachers were unable to return due to Covid. “The consequence of that is the supply teachers we’re getting are people who are unfamiliar with the school and students, which is not great,” he added.

Agencies report problems with ex-teacher ‘call to arms’

Before Christmas, the government issued a call for former teachers to return to the classroom to cover Covid absences. A portal was set up with contact details for dozens of supply agencies.

But several agencies involved in the scheme told Schools Week they had seen a limited response. Concerns over Covid, delays to Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and issues with referencing for long-retired teachers are also presenting challenges.

Adam Sugarman, director of TLTP Education, said 76 former teachers had come forward, but “out of that, only four are compliant”.

“The two big things that slows it down is the DBS and the references,” he said, adding that there should be a “completely different” DBS check for returning teachers that is prioritised and free of charge.

The government said before Christmas that the DBS was “ready to meet any spikes in demand for its service”, and would continue to issue 80 per cent of checks within 14 days. But Sugarman said his own firm’s experience was “very different”, and they could sometimes wait “a couple of months”.

Aspire People offers former teachers a £100 joining incentive and £250 for referrals. The company has so far had 14 people come forward, four of whom are now moving through its system. Kelly Steadman, the company’s sales director, said the call should have come earlier.

School leaders have also expressed doubts. Tom Quinn, chief executive at Frank Field Education Trust, warned that a “Dad’s Army” just “rocking up and saying we can help” was unrealistic.

But others have said any extra help is to be welcomed.

Zahawi said earlier this week that he did not yet have data showing uptake of the scheme nationally and would have a “better idea at the end of this week”.

Older teachers fear spread of Covid

Stewart McCoy, managing director of Career Teachers, said his organisation had “not had any noticeable response” to the call to arms, with “only a handful of enquiries”.

He also warned that “many older teachers do report that they are fearful of the potential increased risk of transmission in schools”.

Mike Donnelly, from Premier Teachers, reported similar issues. Of between 20 to 25 people who came forward after the DfE’s call, a “very high proportion” had pulled out, with the prevalence of the virus being the main reason.

Graham Simms, managing director of Education World, said he had seen “little to no impact in our incoming candidate recruitment trends” from the drive.

Key Education, a small agency covering Norfolk and Suffolk, has had around five applications, though none is yet cleared for work.

Director Samantha Dyson warned there had been “confusion around the announcement”. Some teachers “think it is a voluntary scheme” and so are “surprised” to have to pay for a DBS.

The company heard from some teachers who retired 10 or 20 years ago. “The challenges with that are the changes in curriculum and the use of technology within the classroom so there needs to be allowances for this.”

Marios Georgiou, from Step Teachers, said his company had seen just four ex-teachers come forward. “Unfortunately, and in spite of our efforts to promote the government’s plan, I do not see this changing significantly.”

Recruitment firm puts 10 teachers to work

Other organisations, however, have reported a better response. Gavin Beart, divisional managing director for education at Reed, one of the bigger supply agencies, said it had received just over 70 enquiries. “We registered quite a few in that last week before Christmas. Ten of those are out working this week already, so we are pretty pleased with that.”

He said he would like to see the DfE call to arms extended to cover support staff too as “we think they’ll be needed in the spring term”.

4myschools has heard from 13 retired teachers since the call for action. Chief executive Simone Payne said this was “higher than normal and many only want to do one or a few days a week”.

Kerry Sheehan from Athona Education said they had had 30 former teachers express an interest, which was “definitely above the level we initially expected”.

A spokesperson for the DBS said it was currently “not experiencing any significant delays in issuing our enhanced checks”.

“Approximately 50 per cent are automated and are issued within 24 hours and those that aren’t, around 80 per cent are issued within 14 calendar days, in line with our agreed service standards.

“Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, the organisation has put contingencies in place to ensure we can continue to provide employers with the information they need to make safer recruitment decisions.”

The DfE was approached for comment.

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