Staff absences at twice pre-Covid levels as winter illnesses take their toll

Unions call for the government to cover the cost of supply staff and improve ventilation

Unions call for the government to cover the cost of supply staff and improve ventilation

6 Jan 2023, 12:00

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School staff absences doubled last term when compared with pre-Covid 2019, driven by a surge in flu and other winter illnesses, figures show.

The rise has prompted education unions to call for the government to cover the cost of supply staff and improve ventilation in school buildings.

Data shared by Arbor Education, a management information system used by 3,587 schools across the UK, shows that between the autumn terms in 2019 and 2022, sickness absences rose by 110 per cent.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has warned of “high levels” of flu and Covid that are likely to continue in the coming weeks, alongside high numbers suffering from scarlet fever.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is very worrying to see a big increase in staff absence due to illness, both in terms of the wellbeing of the staff concerned and the potential for further disruption.”

He noted that the Covid workforce fund, which previously provided funding for supply staff and to increase the hours of part-time and support staff, had since been withdrawn.

“The government should at least consider the possibility of reopening this support funding in the light of increasing staff illness particularly as school budgets are so tight,” Barton said.

Schools asking for 30% more supply cover

Zen Educate, an online platform which matches supply teachers with schools, said that schools using its services needed an average of 30 per cent more days of cover during the last half term, compared with the same period in 2021.

The government published regular figures for staff absence during the early Covid years, but has since stopped.

Between September and December last year, there were 1.65 absence logs per each Arbor school, compared with 0.79 in the same timeframe in the last pre-pandemic year.

In this same timeframe, an average of 0.28 absence logs were made per school for colds, coughs, flu or other viral infections last year, compared with 0.04 in 2019 – a 500 per cent increase.

A further breakdown shows that between November and December 15 last year, when most schools broke up for the Christmas holiday, absences for winter illness doubled.

It is not possible to extrapolate the Arbor figures to show an actual average for how many staff per school were off as the absence code used is non-mandatory. Instead, the figures illustrate the scale of the recent rise.

The National Education Union (NEU) warned that “over-stretched” schools could “struggle to function” in face of higher staff absences.

Ofsted says inspectors will consider school ‘context’

Asked if it would take higher than usual rates of winter illness into account during inspections, Ofsted referred schools to a paragraph relating to the pandemic in its inspection handbook.

It notes that inspectors “will consider the specific context and the steps school leaders have taken to ensure the best possible rates of attendance since the school opened to all pupils”.

Kevin Courtney, NEU joint general secretary, said the government needed to “urgently invest in making our crumbling and poorly ventilated schools safe and healthy places to learn”.

In November, the DfE announced that it would provide schools with enough carbon dioxide monitors to put one in every classroom.

Its advice is for schools to “take action to improve ventilation”, such as by opening windows, when readings are above 1,500 parts per million.

Pupil attendance has also dropped. DfE data shows illness absences rose to 7.5 per cent in the week starting December 5, up from 6.1 per cent the previous week.

Across the autumn term, the illness absence rate was 4.3 per cent.

UKHSA guidance issued this week urged parents to keep their child off school if they are “unwell and have a fever” or for at least 48 hours after symptoms of diarrhoea or vomiting cleared up.

The DfE was contacted for comment.

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