Schools in England may suspend certain subjects to cope with Covid

Schools in England could suspend the teaching of specialist subjects such as music as part of emergency timetable changes to cope with soaring Covid-related absence rates among staff, headteachers have been advised.

As the new term got under way, most primary schools managed to reopen, but some heads reported difficulties as a result of sick staff and pupils having to isolate, and warned that the situation could deteriorate fast.

In secondary schools, mass Covid testing is under way as part of a staggered return for pupils over the next few days. Parents at some schools, however, have already been advised their children will move to online lessons because of a shortage of staff because of sickness.

Earlier this week, the Department for Education (DfE) suggested that headteachers, faced with high levels of staff absence, should combine classes and teach in larger groups in order to keep children in school.

It has now emerged that heads might also consider temporarily suspending the teaching of specialist subjects including music and relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in order to free up staff for other teaching, according to a Tes report.

Ian Bauckham, who chairs the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) and is also chief executive and director of the Tenax Schools Trust, outlined the proposal as part of a “case study” on a DfE portal for headteachers, seen by Tes.

While high absence levels can be managed to a certain degree, Bauckham wrote, “a point is also reached where resources can be stretched too thinly and alternatives, however undesirable, become necessary”.

He went on: “In cases where a specialist teacher rotates between classes to teach subjects that sometimes include for example PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), RSHE or music, it may be possible temporarily to suspend the teaching of that subject and use that teacher to teach classes whose normal teacher is absent and unable to teach remotely.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said any such move would depend on absence rates. “It is likely that where schools are experiencing particularly severe shortages of staff they will need to take other action such as combining classes or sending home classes or year groups to learn remotely for short periods of time.”

Parklands high school in Chorley, Lancashire, is one of a number of schools to move to blended learning this week because of staff off sick. A statement from the school reported in local media said: “Unfortunately, due to an increase in staff absence due to Covid, we have had to take the difficult decision to revert to blended learning, with one year group working from home each day this week.”

Bauckham and the DfE have been approached for comment.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “We are hearing from our members that they are finding some pupils are absent and some staff are off sick or isolating. It is not a uniform picture, but at the moment school contingency plans are being relied upon to keep the system working.

“It remains to be seen how that progresses during the rest of the week and further into the term. If the priority is to keep children in school we will need innovative approaches to delivery when staffing is critically low.”


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