NADHIM ZAHAWI, the UK Secretary of State for Education, has emailed headteachers in England, saying that his government will will try to encourage retired teachers to consider returning to schools to help with Covid-19 staff shortages and keep schools open.

Responding, Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “There is no doubt that there has been a shortage of supply staff available in recent months. This has placed an added pressure on schools and it looks like things are about to get worse rather than better.

“Of course, given the current situation, it would be helpful if there were more suitably qualified teachers available with recent relevant experience and with the appropriate safeguarding checks.

“However, this proposal does raise a whole host of important questions that will need answering urgently. Ultimately, it must remain the case that school leaders decide who has the appropriate expertise and qualifications to teach classes in their schools. Having a greater number of supply teachers to call upon could be helpful, but it will not take away from the very challenging circumstances schools could find themselves operating under.

“We also need to be very clear that if things get to this stage, it will mean that education will look very different in January and this is sending a clear signal that we could be talking about a very different type of provision at the start of next year. That has huge implications for things like exams, assessment and inspection.”

Also commenting, Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Of course we support measures that could help to reduce education disruption. With this call for retired teachers to come forward the Government is admitting they are assuming there will be substantial disruption of education in January.

“It is important to say that this disruption is likely to be made worse because of the Government’s failure to put in place the mitigations and safety measures we have been calling for – on ventilation, air filtration, mask wearing and isolation of very close contacts.

“We still need those mitigations to be put in place – even to help with the effort of recruitment of temporary retired staff. Some of these older colleagues will be concerned about their chance of contracting Covid-19 and better mitigations will be necessary to reassure them.

“We are also extremely concerned about the proposal to recruit these retired staff through teacher supply agencies which rake off scarce funds from schools to maximise their profits whilst minimising the pay they offer supply teachers. That is not the right way to behave in response to a national call to arms.

“Northern Ireland and Scotland have much better systems for employment of supply staff and these could be stood up quickly in England if there were sufficient political will. Local authorities are well placed to scale up or create pools of supply.”

* Sources: National Association of Head Teachers and National Education Union