Some 500 former teachers who have signed up to tackle staff shortages in England's schools will not come close to covering absences caused by Covid, unions have warned.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, last month urged ex-teachers to temporarily return to help with a surge in absences amid the rise of the Omicron variant.
The Department for Education (DfE) estimates that one in 12 teachers and school leaders in England – around 44,000 – were off at the start of term last week.
Initial data from the DfE collected from 10 per cent of supply teacher agencies suggests 485 former teachers have signed up to help.
Meanwhile, 100 Teach First alumni – who trained to become teachers with the charity but now work outside the profession – have “expressed an interest” in supporting the workforce.
But headteachers' unions said the numbers “barely scratch the surface” and are “a drop in the ocean” compared to the challenge caused by the Omicron variant.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: “It is great to see that a number of former teachers have been willing to offer their services to schools ... Unfortunately, the number of former teachers who have returned to classrooms is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge faced.”
He said NAHT surveys had found that absence rates varied and more than 20 per cent of teachers were off in some schools. The education secretary said preparations were being made for as many as 25 per cent of teachers across England to be off.
Mr Whiteman said: “Despite the tireless work of school leaders and their teams, and the immense good will of every teacher who has returned to help out, there is no escaping the fact that if a school has a quarter of its workforce off, that will have a significant impact on education.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), thanked returning teachers but said the numbers returning “barely scratch the surface of the huge level of staff absence caused by Covid-19”.
“This initiative, while well-intentioned, was too little, too late, and the government should put more resources and effort into supporting measures to reduce the risk of transmission such as ventilation and testing,” he said.
The DfE has said the actual number of ex-teachers who have signed up is likely to be much larger given the size of the sample. It stressed that the call for ex-teachers to return was still ongoing.
Some volunteers may have approached schools directly and this would not be captured in the estimate, it added.
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The Education Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank, said schools may still have to turn to online learning despite the government's intervention.
James Zuccollo, director of school workforce at the EPI, said: “While schools will welcome any additional staffing support, this intervention is unlikely to reverse the recent increases in absences and prevent some schools from having to close.”
The Labour Party said the government did not have a credible plan to tackle workforce absences and keep children in schools.
Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, said: “These figures show the government’s reliance on the good will of ex-teachers alone is an utterly inadequate answer to staffing shortages, equating to just one additional teacher for every 50 schools.”
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