Leeds school leaders warn new term will be 'extremely challenging' due to Covid-related staff shortages

School leaders in Leeds say they are braced for an "extremely challenging" start to the new term caused by Covid-related staff shortages and have warned the quality of education will suffer as a consequence.

By Joanna Wardill
Monday, 3rd January 2022, 4:45 pm

With schools preparing to reopen from tomorrow, headteachers across the city have been anxiously working to establish the scale of staff absences due to positive tests - a situation they admit is likely to change “daily” due to the impact of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

Richard Sheriff, chief executive of Red Kite Learning Trust, which runs a number of schools in Leeds and Harrogate, tonight told the Yorkshire Evening Post that the true picture was still emerging but at least 20 per cent of staff were having to isolate at one primary school as well as ten per cent at an east Leeds secondary school. .

He said: “They are going to manage but it’s not sustainable in the long-term,” adding: “Every day is different. There is still a lot of uncertainty about how many people we will actually have in schools.

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Pupils return to classrooms from today. Picture: AdobeStock

“We’re staying optimistic that we will have enough staff to open schools, but it’s going to be really difficult these first few weeks.”

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He said finding temporary staff has been “very difficult for a number of months now. I’ve not heard of dozens and dozens of retired teachers wanting to come back to the classroom”.

And with the impact of staffing shortages affecting “our function as a school”, he added: “How do we give anything like the level of resource to young people that they deserve?”

Richard Sheriff, chief executive of Red Kite Learning Trust, which runs a number of schools in Leeds and Harrogate.

Ben Mallinson, principal of inner city secondary school, The Ruth Gorse Academy, said: “As school leaders, it’s going to be an extremely challenging term for us. There is no doubt that staff absence is going to play a significant part in the operations of schools.

“We are already having reported absences due to positive cases and people are waiting their PCR tests and results. And that [number] could change overnight.

“What I do know is we are already under staffing capacity. We already have challenges in terms of putting teachers in front of young people.”

He described finding teaching cover as a “constant” struggle, adding: “We can’t continue to expect to provide the high quality education when staffing is so challenging.

Ben Mallinson, principal of inner city secondary school, The Ruth Gorse Academy.

“I imagine across the city, [there are] significant challenges in terms of providing high quality of cover professionals.”

He criticised the Government’s directive for schools to take a “flexible” approach and utilise all staff - including non-teaching staff - to take classes.

“Whilst that’s not ideal because they are not qualified to be leading classes, we also need to respect the fact that their wider responsibilities - attendance management, SEN provision, safeguarding, pastoral - are extremely important.

“It’s going to be very challenging in terms of staffing levels. We have had an extremely supportive and collaborative way of moving through this pandemic as a staffing body. You can’t ask staff to do any more.”

Schools remain braced to bring in contingency measures - such as the return of bubble structures and home learning - at speed should they be needed.

Mr Mallinson said: “It’s something we are mindful of and will have to monitor on a daily basis. We know, with the Omicron variant, it’s possible for things to change quickly, and change the school capacity and dynamic overnight and we will have to respond accordingly.”

Fears were also raised over the additional impact on the city’s more vulnerable pupils.

Mr Mallinson said: “Those students from a disadvantaged background in particular have been impacted by the pandemic and therefore deserve the best quality of teaching.”

Mr Sheriff said schools function well on routines and such large-scale disruptions have a major impact on children.

He said: “It’s particularly hard for our more vulnerable young people. Those who sometimes struggle to get to school anyway. For those we are incredibly worried that the long-term effect hasn’t really been seen yet.

“I think further disruption will make that so much worse,” he said, adding: “We are just hopeful that this period is short-lived and we are near the peak and can go back to more normal schooling soon.”

It comes after the Government outlined new “temporary” Covid measures for the new term, with the reintroduction of masks in secondary classrooms, twice-weekly testing, and an additional 7,000 air cleaning units provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: "The priority is to keep schools open."

The Government said the latest recommendations will remain in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire. At this point they will be reviewed.

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