Covid is making the teaching crisis much worse

By Karam Bales

As an example of the continued disruption facing education, I had to delay writing this article due to catching Covid. Despite those claiming transmission isn’t significant in schools, the only place I had been in the past week had been in school. 

A number of my colleagues were also off at the same time and we barely managed to keep the school fully open without having to send whole year groups home due to a lack of staff. We did have to double up some classes, however, with sixty students being taught in a hall by a single teacher.

The argument propagated by lobbyists, the media  and parliamentarians that testing and isolation of positive cases were the real cause of disruption in education was always false, and the data from this past term since the removal of this basic infection control measure proves this. It’s not testing that causes disruption; it’s the virus, and it always has been. 

A few weeks after schools were told to stop testing, my own school ran out of staff. Too many were sick for us to be able to meet basic safeguarding and so our head was left with no choice but to send whole year groups home to learn remotely.

In those year groups that remained, we had large gaps in our registers. Some classes had more than 20% of students off. They weren’t off due to testing positive while being asymptomatic: they were all off because they were sick with Covid symptoms. Many then tested and found that Covid was the cause of their illness. This was during the second Omicron wave of the year, and already we are now going through our third wave which according to Department for Education data has seen one in five students absent at the same time due to sickness.

The government have repeatedly stated the best place for students is in school. Elements of the media who pushed this point and acted with outrage that some schools decided to close early for two days this week, due to having unventilated classrooms in 40-degree heat, have been suspiciously silent on the scale of student absence due to sickness.

In recent months we’ve seen a focus on ‘ghost children’ – the supposed lost children of lockdown who have slipped through the gaps and are now missing. However, this isn’t the case. The statistic comes from a report produced by the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank founded by Iain Duncan-Smith, but itis a misrepresentation:  the 100,000 are students with severe absence, they are all registered and tracked: they are not missing.

The majority of this absence isn’t even a product of the harms of lockdown as has been touted. The DfE’s analysis of their own data provided to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation states that the majority of severe absence is due to sickness from Covid. Yet the Schools Bill quotes these figures to justify an expansion of data collection powers and a punitive approach to CEV (clinically extremely vulnerable) families with genuine safety concerns regarding unmitigated transmission in schools.

The Bank of England released a statement on the economic harm cause by long Covid, estimating around 350,000 workers have had to leave employment due to ill health. Rather than addressing this worrying trend, the UK government has celebrated lower unemployment figure. More people are not in work, less people are able to work, and according to the Office of National Statistics, education workers have the highest rate of long Covid.

We already had a retention crisis prior to the pandemic, with 8% of the workforce leaving in a year for reasons other than retirement. We have thousands of unfilled teacher training places, for example, next school year across the whole of England there will only be thirty trainee physics teachers, which is why the government’s latest pay offer for teachers has been met with horror by school leaders.

Five per cent means a 6% real terms cut for teaching staff. However, the greatest insult is that this offer will not be funded: the increase must be paid out of existing budgets, meaning that either academies will use their financial freedoms to choose not to give the pay award, or they will have to make cuts elsewhere, either by not replacing teachers when they leave, cutting support staff jobs or even dropping subjects. We will not be able to maintain the current standard of education. Opportunities for state school students are about to be reduced on a scale not seen before.

Unions are preparing to ballot for industrial action in the autumn. Strikes seem likely and it will be vital for the Labour Party and the public to support unwanted short-term disruption because what’s at stake is the access to opportunity for a whole generation.

Karam Bales is a former member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.

Image: Classroom. Author: Slp1, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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