The Education Secretary's big idea sounds better than it is
Most teachers and students should now be celebrating the start of the Christmas holidays, but instead are anxiously awaiting the ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron that is predicted to hit schools in January. There are concerns that January mock exams — which could prove vital if we have to return to teacher-assessed grades — will be cancelled, and many schools are already preparing for remote learning or delayed start dates. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi even said yesterday morning that disruptions are likely until Easter, and has called upon retired and former teachers to “come forward and join the national mission” to keep schools open during the spring term.
It’s a nice idea in theory: a garrison of grey-haired grandparents valiantly returning to the schools they once loved to help join the war effort against Omicron. Except in reality, of course, it will be nothing like that. Former teachers left for a reason, and retired teachers (who are probably much older) are unlikely to want to put themselves in an environment where Covid is rife, ventilation is poor, and social distancing is impossible. Latest figures show that in the last two weeks of November, school staff were 37% more likely to catch Covid than other workers. As Omicron becomes dominant, this risk will only increase.
Even if there was a surprising uptake in volunteers, there are two other practical obstacles to consider. Firstly, former and retired teachers will most likely need a new DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check before they are allowed to work with pupils. Basic DBS checks take around fourteen days to process, but enhanced DBS checks (which are needed to teach) typically take six to eight weeks. By this point we will hopefully be over the peak, and rapidly approaching the Easter holidays anyway.
Secondly, the government isn’t asking people to volunteer with schools directly, but instead match with a supply agency who will tell you — often with very little notice — when and where you are needed. Supply agencies are expensive for schools; they normally charge around £160-200 a day per teacher, and so just one staff member isolating for ten days equates to thousands of pounds. Yet we also cannot expect people to volunteer out of the goodness of their hearts. Being a supply teacher is challenging — teaching pupils you don’t know and have no relationship with in an unfamiliar environment is not for the faint-hearted — and so we need the financial incentive if we want people to sign up.
If the government and schools can work together to get the programme up and running quickly (which will not be easy over the Christmas holidays) then having a greater pool of supply teachers may help to ease some of the pressure. However, if we really want to minimise disruption to students’ education, then having someone there just to supervise isn’t enough. We need to make sure that supply teachers match with their subject specialism, and we need to keep transmission as low as possible or show some flexibility around self-isolation policies for asymptomatic, boostered staff. For isolating teachers, the Government should provide them with support to help them teach from home. Either way, we are looking set for a very bumpy Christmas period.