Schools are being urged to ask ex-teachers to temporarily return to the classroom to help ease staffing shortages as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads across the country.
In an email to school and college leaders, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told headteachers they could support an effort to boost the numbers of supply staff by encouraging former employees to “sign up”.
With record-breaking numbers of COVID cases in the UK, there are reports that schools are experiencing very low attendances among staff members as they self-isolate.
Some are also reported to have taken the decision to close early ahead of the Christmas holidays.
Mr Zahawi noted that there was a squeeze on the availability of temporary cover, adding in his email: “We know that in areas with high absence, a particular issue can be the availability of supply staff.
“We want to make sure that as many supply staff as possible are available to schools and colleges.
“That is why we are now looking at what steps and measures we can put in place to boost supply capacity.
“We will work with sector leaders and supply agencies over the coming days to offer advice to ex-teachers who want to provide support to schools and colleges.
“We will help them to register with supply agencies as the best way to boost the temporary workforce available to the sector.
“Senior Department for Education (DfE) officials have already begun to discuss this with key stakeholders.
“From now, you can support this effort by using your own professional and personal networks to encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help.”
Mr Zahawi also informed school and college leaders that the government’s workforce fund would continue until February half-term.
But both education unions and Labour claimed that the DfE’s actions were “a sticking plaster” as they warned of further disruption in schools in January.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This is all coming very late in the day for a situation which is already critical and has been so for some time, and the initiative will need to be well publicised, promoted and supported in order to have any degree of success.
“It is also important to emphasise that even then it is very unlikely to be enough to solve a problem at such a scale as this, and the government does need to do much more in terms of supporting control measures, such as testing and ventilation, in order to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “With this call for retired teachers to come forward the government is admitting they are assuming there will be substantial disruption of education in January.
“It is important to say that this disruption is likely to be made worse because of the government’s failure to put in place the mitigations and safety measures we have been calling for – on ventilation, air filtration, mask wearing and isolation of very close contacts.
“We still need those mitigations to be put in place – even to help with the effort of recruitment of temporary retired staff.”
Labour’s shadow schools minister Stephen Morgan said: “This is a sticking plaster, and only part of what’s needed to keep children and staff safely in class next term.
“The government’s failure to get a proper workforce plan in place leaves staff, children and parents relying on good will from retired staff and volunteers, many of whom face additional risks themselves.”