One in 12 teachers in England were absent from classrooms in the first week of the spring term, as the Omicron coronavirus variant drove a spike in cases in schools and disrupted education for hundreds of thousands of pupils.
Department for Education figures released on Tuesday showed 8.6 per cent of teachers and school leaders, or 44,000 people, were absent from schools that were open on January 6, compared with 8 per cent on December 16. Some 4.9 per cent of the teaching workforce was absent as a result of Covid, up from 3 per cent on December 16.
When pupils returned to the classroom in September 1 per cent of teachers were off for Covid related reasons, and 3.4 per cent were off in total.
Government figures showed the rate of absence was similar among teaching assistants and other school workers, leaving more than 105,000 staff out of the classroom on January 6.
The increased staff absence rate has left school leaders struggling to provide enough teachers and some warned of further disruption as Omicron persists.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said “any hope that the Christmas holidays would act as a firebreak for schools and colleges” had “evaporated” this week.
“There is still huge disruption,” he said. “The challenges posed by having so many staff absent will continue to put schools and colleges under severe pressure.”
In the face of higher than usual absences, some schools have redeployed other staff to cover classes, combined classes, or moved learning online. Supply teaching agencies and school leaders have said the demand for back-up staff to cover absences was outstripping supply.
Separate figures released on Tuesday by the Oak National Academy, a national resource for online lessons, showed demand jumped last week with 139,000 users logging on to the platform last Wednesday compared with a daily average of 40,000 in mid-December.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said “making sure all children and young people can attend school or college” remained his “number one priority.”
In the face of shortages, the government last year issued a call for former teachers to step in by signing up to supply agencies. Figures released on Tuesday showed that at least 585 teachers had volunteered, but noted it was not possible to confirm precise data.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said while it was “great” to see teachers step forward, the number was a “drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge faced”.
Survey data from the union showed “considerable variation” in absence rates, he added, with more than 20 per cent of staff off in a “small but growing number” of schools.
Official statistics also showed that more than 314,000 children were off school on January 6 as a result of the virus, equivalent to 3.9 per cent of the population, compared with 3.7 per cent at the end of last year.
Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, said “acute staff shortages” were likely to “persist for some time” and that the government should consider more support, such as funding for supply teachers.
“We need to see education interventions that are well-targeted to those areas most affected,” she said.