Last reviewed 11 January 2022

As schools limped towards Christmas, numbers of Omicron infections continued to rise and the outlook for the spring term was beginning to look decidedly uncertain. Former head teacher Michael Evans looks at some of the problems schools will now be facing in the first weeks of 2022.

Dashed optimism

In September 2021 the new academic year started with a note of optimism, when the DfE was pleased to announce that everything was expected to return to the way that it had been in pre-pandemic times. Upbeat Ofsted announced that inspections were to resume right away.

For schools the new term began with them still having to cope with the aftermath of months of intermittent lockdown and remote learning, not to mention the problems associated with two years of controversial arrangements for GCSE and A-level examinations, and the need to ensure that staff and pupils were regularly tested.

Gradually, as a result of hard work, things started to return to normal. Then we began to hear about Omicron. By the end of November, the first cases began to appear, and this highly contagious variant rapidly spread.

A shortage of teachers

The Government’s priority was that face-to-face, high-quality education should be delivered for all pupils, but anticipated staff sickness was likely to lead to significant problems. On 20 December, Education Secretary Nahim Zahawi put out a plea for former teachers to volunteer as supply teachers in order to fill the gaps. They would need to undertake the usual comprehensive checks to work with children and in order to join the workforce from January, ideally these checks should be carried out before Christmas Eve.

Since Mr Zahawi’s plea went out on the Monday of Christmas week, and Christmas Eve was on the Friday, this gave volunteers just three days to obtain the necessary clearance.

Worries about a shortage of teaching staff in schools were confirmed at the start of term when many schools reported staff shortages of 10% or more, due to sickness or the need to self-isolate. Supply teacher agencies reported that they had never seen such a great demand on their services. In the first weeks, shortage of staff caused many schools to send home classes or even whole year groups.

Unhappy unions

Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions and the unions representing support staff were unhappy at prospects for the new term. While stressing that face-to-face teaching was a top priority and acknowledging the noble efforts of education staff in supporting vulnerable children who had been badly affected by the pandemic, in a joint letter the unions pointed out that last term education staff were more likely than other workers to test positive and need to self-isolate. Schools were portrayed as places where staff were being exposed to terrifying risks.

Alternative evidence from official statistics and scientific studies suggested that there was no increased risk of Covid death for teachers compared with any other adult in the same age cohorts.

While Omicron continued to rage, the unions were united in arguing that it was important for the Government to take immediate and urgent steps to mitigate the risk of Covid transmission and to minimise disruption in schools and colleges. One of these is the improvement of fresh air sources in schools.

Towards the end of the autumn term the DfE had provided 1000 air purifier units free of charge to special schools and alternative provision settings. Other schools were invited to purchase units from an approved marketplace, but many schools baulked at the cost.

As the new term was about to start, the DfE announced that 7000 air purifiers were to be made available to state schools, colleges, and early years settings. These were intended as a quick fix until better ventilation could be arranged. The devices were not to be used as a substitute for ventilation and they were only to be used in teaching spaces and not in staff rooms.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint secretary of the National Education Union, described government measures as being “totally inadequate”, pointing out that there were 300,000 classrooms in England, so 7000 devices would hardly be sufficient.

The return of face coverings

In a further attempt to ensure that face-to-face education could continue, secondary pupils were to have rapid flow tests at school before the start of term and thereafter twice a week at home. The Government also recommended that at least for the first three weeks of term, Year 7 students and above should wear face coverings in all classrooms and teaching spaces.

Unions, understandably, were in broad agreement with the wearing of face coverings. Unison found that 71% of its school support staff members felt that face masks in secondary school classrooms were an important safety measure.

But the use of face coverings proved to be contentious. Concerns were raised about the damaging effects that wearing face coverings had on students. These included problems of communication in the classroom, and the risk of potential negative impacts on teaching, learning, and wider health and wellbeing. Previously the Government had favoured the avoidance of masks because of their damage to education. Prof. Sarah Lewis, expert in molecular epidemiology at the University of Bristol, pointed out that a government study had indicated that statistically, mask wearing had no significant impact on transmission.

The Government’s stance was that high infection rates presented a challenge to maintaining face-to-face education and the wearing of face coverings could reduce transmission and maximise attendance.

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) expressed its concern, pointing out that teaching is about communication, which is already a challenge for deaf children. Lipreading and the interpretation of facial expressions are vital to these children and if they can no longer understand their teachers and their peers, there is often little point in their attending school or college, which can do significant harm to their wellbeing.

Research has noted that 94% of head teachers reported that masks made communication between pupils and staff more difficult, while official Government evidence confirmed that 80% of pupils reported that masks made it difficult for them to communicate and 55% felt that they hampered learning.

Since mask wearing in school was only a recommendation, there have been reports of large numbers of pupils taking matters into their own hands and refusing to wear masks or even take lateral flow tests.

This has drawn a mixed response. The conventional view is that these students are selfishly causing the potential spread of infection, while the counter argument is that they are exercising their freedom since not wearing a mask avoids all the serious downsides, and research has shown that masks have no significant effect on controlling the spread of the virus anyway.

This is a classic example of what can happen when guidance is issued rather than instruction. After all, guidance means that people are given a choice, but an unfortunate effect of the pandemic is that most of the population have been conditioned to regard guidance as instruction. The problem is that a significant number of students have taken the guidance as being what it is.

The Government states that “no pupil should be denied education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering”. As one writer put it, “teachers have now become powerless enforcers”.

GCSEs and A-levels; will they, won’t they?

This is the final term to prepare pupils for their GCSE an A-level exams. The uncertainty of the future means that it is now highly unlikely that these will go ahead as planned. As Revd Steve Chalk, founder of Oasis Academy Trust, put it: “How can we have an undisrupted term? How can you create a level playing field nationally?”

A plea was made for more Government support to mitigate possible educational disruption during the spring term, if only to prevent a third successive year where GCSEs, A-levels and other exams had to be cancelled. Students and teachers deserved the removal of this uncertainty and additional workload.

Is there to be a Plan B and if so, what is it?

Ofsted resumes

Meanwhile, Ofsted inspections are destined to continue into the foreseeable future, although schools and colleges can now request a deferment if they are significantly impacted by Covid-related staff absence. As a temporary measure, inspectors who are also school, college or early years leaders will be relieved from inspections and asked to focus on their leadership responsibilities.

Paul Whiteman of the NAHT commented that Ofsted inspections were the last thing that schools needed while they were under such pressure just to stay open. Although deferrals would be helpful, “it would be even better if inspections were suspended entirely, allowing inspectors to return to the classroom to help the effort”.

Mary Bousted of the NEU commented that it was hard to see how Ofsted could function without the services of serving head teachers and that rather than limping along, all inspections, other than safeguarding concerns, should be suspended.

A look to the future

2022 has not got off to a particularly auspicious start, at least, not as far as schools are concerned. It is difficult to predict what will happen next. Staffing is likely to be a serious issue and schools and colleges will most certainly be faced with challenges of how to cover for absences.

Doubtless the pandemic will be with us for quite some time. As before we are likely to experience periods of optimism, where things at last seem to be recovering, and then we will get hit by another blow. This is an illness that should not be underrated, people will continue to fall ill, and some will die. Many schools will already have had to cope with bereaved staff or pupils and, sadly, this is likely to continue.

Probably the only cause for optimism is that the longer the pandemic continues, the better we will all be able to cope with everything that it throws up. Schools and colleges will have to get used to a revolutionary way of operating.

Summary

  • Hopes for the future dashed by a new variant.

  • Teacher sickness throws everything into disarray.

  • Unions are unhappy about government protective measures.

  • Face coverings return, amid opposition from a number of quarters.

  • What is the future for GCSEs and A-levels?

  • Ofsted resumes.

  • What does the future hold?