When demand outweighs supply: the problem of safely staffing a school during the pandemic 

The sharp rise in positive COVID-19 cases has left schools in Wales, as in many other countries, struggling to find enough teachers, with many off sick and isolating. Here, a primary school headteacher offers his personal perspectives on how to address this challenging situation

Jonathan Keohane

How do you get out of a room with no windows or doors? Where does a thought go when you’ve forgotten it? Impossible-sounding problems are what school leaders face every day at the moment, as they consider how to staff their schools safely during the pandemic while maintaining educational standards for all pupils.

COVID-19 continues to throw up operational and social challenges for schools all over the world. Here in Wales, our schools experienced a sharp rise in positive cases among both staff and pupils during the autumn term – further magnified by the ease and speed with which the Omicron variant infects people. While thankfully, most positive cases result in only mild or moderate illness and a full recovery is made, the disruption to schooling for pupils is having far-reaching implications – including a lack of suitably qualified staff to deliver lessons; school leaders having to stand in, resulting in strategic planning taking a back seat; and the closure of the nursery setting.

In ‘normal’ times, schools would engage with supply agencies, of which there are many, to provide adequate short-term cover for staff absences. But during the COVID crisis, many agencies have begun charging schools around £200 a day per supply teacher, while passing on a fraction of that fee. Furthermore, most supply staff don’t receive the benefits of centrally employed staff, including pension contributions, holiday pay, sick pay and access to excellent professional learning. Indeed, despite the Welsh Government having introduced the National Procurement Service (NPS) framework in 2019, a debate is still needed about how  to ensure supply staff are treated with equality and fairness. But that’s not the main focus of this blog.

The key problems we are facing

Since the autumn, a clear lack of supply teachers within the Welsh education system has increased the pressure on school leaders to safely staff classes when members of staff are absent, whether for COVID-related or other reasons. This has resulted in some schools having to move from educational provision to childcare provision (i.e. using available staff to supervise children but not educate them, simply to keep classes open). In the most extreme cases, some schools have been forced to close classes and move to online learning.

Added to this, some agencies are cancelling supply bookings, often with only a few hours’ notice. Although there are no clear reasons for this, many supply teachers work for several agencies, and it may be that agencies agree to bookings before assigning staff. Some supply staff have suggested that larger supply agencies may then ‘force’ them to cancel bookings with smaller agencies in order to be able to work for them.

While schools are doing all they can to limit the knock-on effects on children, when forced into measures such as these, there is always going to be a negative impact on the education of our pupils. Since March 2020, a generation of schoolchildren has endured a disjointed and fractured education.

In this academic year, schools have been working hard to reduce any academic gaps that may have appeared during the national lockdowns – and just as importantly, to enable children to reconnect and re-establish social connections with their peers and school staff. As JJ Watt, an American Football player for the Arizona Cardinals, puts it: ‘What I remember most about high school are the memories I created with my friends.’ The last thing our children need is another period of fractured education.

The big question: why don’t we have a sufficient supply of teachers?

So to the big question: why don’t we have a sufficient supply of teachers to meet the current need? Honestly, there is not a solid answer to this. While clearly the impact of Coronavirus is having a monumental impact and has resulted in schools needing cover at an unprecedented level, it’s likely not the only reason.

For example, one other issue may be the Welsh Government’s Newly Qualified Teacher scheme. While I believe the scheme is, overall, a wonderful development as it provides a first position for newly qualified teachers to work in successful schools to further enhance and embed their training, it has also reduced the amount of teaching staff available in the system.

Another possibility is that there are too many teacher supply agencies in Wales, and therefore the pool is spread thinly between too many providers. The real issue here is the absolute amount of supply staff: since many of these teachers are on the books of multiple agencies, it might appear on paper that we have a suitably sized supply workforce – but this is not true in practice. As previously mentioned, the size of a teacher supply agency often dictates where a supply teacher ultimately works, even if they have agreed to a previous booking. A reduction in the amount of agencies could reduce this problem.

Five potential steps to addressing this complex problem

I’m certainly not sitting here thinking I have all the answers to this complex problem. But in the interests of making some progress at this difficult time on the question of how we could improve the supply system here in Wales, here are a few ideas derived from my personal experiences of the current situation.

  1. Establish a supply staffing pool, either through each local authority or regionally. This would differ from our current system as local authorities or regional consortia could manage the pool, ensure supply staff have the correct terms and conditions, and provide appropriate professional learning. In addition, this could potentially help to develop the next wave of teaching talent to enhance a local authority area or region; almost an academy-style way of developing talent. This would help to develop a bank of staff while also addressing the inconsistencies with how supply staff are treated across Wales.
  2. If this is unachievable, then at least reduce the number of supply agencies to allow a streamlined service for school leaders to engage with. Ideally, this system would be closely monitored and inspected by the Welsh Government, to ensure all supply staff are treated equally.
  3. Engage with teaching staff who work part-time to see if they are prepared to work full-time to help manage this period. I fully understand and respect that some colleagues choose to work part-time but surely it is worth a conversation at the local authority level, to explore the possibility of increasing the size of the teaching pool in this way?
  4. Understand that senior school leaders without a teaching commitment – for example, headteachers, deputy and assistant heads, and TLR holders – are having to take on more teaching responsibilities. In my school, I was teaching three out of every four days when we were most stretched last term. The wider educational system needs to understand and respect that some things a senior leader may usually complete are not being actioned. The pressures of scrutiny need to be reduced or moved, and a ‘trust culture’ developed. Of course, this idea needs to be finely balanced, as senior leaders also need to ensure that teaching, standards, outcomes and educational provision are all good or better.
  5. Deploy the regional ‘army’. In Wales, we have a regional (middle) tier known as consortia which often work across several local authority areas, offering strategic support and advice to schools within the region. This regional tier has hundreds of teachers on the books. In ‘normal’ circumstances, these professionals complete purposeful strategic roles; however, we have established that these are not normal times. Could this ‘army’ of staff at regional level be deployed to schools to help manage the current unprecedented situation?

To summarise, the pressures currently felt by schools to safely staff classes are enormous and unprecedented – and these pressures are increasing day on day. Schools are doing a wonderful job at the coalface to continue providing education to pupils; however, as time goes on and factoring in the Omicron variant, the challenges are moving from difficulties to impossibilities when considering keeping classes open for pupils.

I firmly believe there must be positive legacies of Coronavirus – and one could be the prospect of restructuring our supply teacher system, for the mutual benefit of our schools, children and the supply staff.

Jonathan Keohane is the Headteacher of Roath Park Primary School