A shortage of supply staff to cover isolating teachers on the Fylde coast could see pupils kept off school, it was claimed.
Headteacher Graeme Dow from Anchorsholme Academy, which, like many places, has seen a fresh outbreak of Covid recently, also called on the Government to help cover the cost of temporary teachers.
Teachers, like anybody else, have to stay at home for 10 days should they test positive for Covid – with not enough substitutes to go around.
Mr Dow said: “We just don’t want to have to send classes home, but this is unsustainable.
“If we have to send a class home, that’s 30 families affected. Parents that can’t go to work, and have to find childcare.”
The primary school, in Eastpines Drive, has recorded dozens of cases within its community in recent weeks and told parents it is “facing challenging staff shortages each day”.
It warned in a letter: “As it is extremely difficult to get supply teachers, we will have to operate a range of alternative approaches to avoid, where possible, sending classes home.
“Should we reach critical staff shortages and cannot provide cover, we will have no alternative but to send classes home.”
Mr Dow and his deputy head, Andrew Hurley, have been stepping in to cover classes – regularly teaching for long periods – in a bid to avoid sending youngsters home.
He fears, though, he soon won’t have a choice.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been in the position of having to call nine agencies just to find supply teachers,” he said.
“When I have teachers having to self-isolate and I ring up every supply agency and none can help, I worry about how we are doing to educate the children.
“It’s hard on them [staff] too because they love these children and are worried about having to be away from them. They offer to take extra pupils but it all has a knock-on effect.”
Not only is continuity a cause for concern – pupils can have multiple supply teachers over the 10 days their usual one is isolating – but cost is too.
Although the Government last month announced a pot of cash to keep schools open amid fears over the new Omicron variant, only schools whose reserves fall to less than four per cent of their annual income are eligible.
Mr Dow said: “It costs us at least £2,000 to pay a supply teacher for 10 days. That is on top of our usual teacher salaries.
“If a school has several teachers off with Covid, it amounts to a lot.
“We would be expected to cover six classes – 180 children – in a day before we would get any funding.
“Covering six classes for a day would cost approximately £1,200 in supply, so for a 10-day absence this would be £12,000 before they would give any funding.
“I don’t know how we are expected to do this.”
Sara Middleton, a recruitment consultant at Tower Supply Agency in Church Street, Blackpool, said: “Covid has come on top of the usual cold and flu season, and with so many people having to self isolate it has really impacted us.”
Sara has worked at the agency for 15 years, and believes the industry is facing a two-fold problem: a surge in demand, and significantly fewer staff available on a daily basis.
She added: “We’re much thinner on the ground than I’ve ever known.”
Meanwhile, many supply teachers have signed up for the post-lockdown catch-up programme, which means they have less availability.
Dre Patrick Roach, General Secretary for the teachers’ union, NASUWT, said: “The bad practices already embedded within the employment system for supply teachers have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
“Rising numbers of supply teachers are walking away from the profession. That trickle is set to become a flood unless something is done.
“Even prior to the pandemic experienced supply teachers routinely reported the refusal of agencies to pay them to scale, often receiving rates below that of a NQT. This is on top of being denied access to rights such as sick pay, training and annual leave, and in many cases being forced to sign exploitative agreements with umbrella companies that tie them into a structure of complex fees and additional payments that drain their salaries still further.”
The Department for Education said: “We remain committed to protecting face-to-face education, and teaching staff are doing a brilliant job at striking the balance between Covid safety measures and keeping children in the classroom where they belong.