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42,000 teachers off in first week of term is better than what Government expected

The schools minister has said that teacher absence in England is “less that we had been projecting” despite 42,000 being off last Thursday (6 January).

Robin Walker said that keeping schools open is the Government’s “absolute priority”, and that ministers would not set an “arbitrary” absence figure at which schools should close.

According to figures published by the Department for Education on Tuesday, 44,000 teachers and school leaders were absent on 6 January. This represents 8.6 per cent of all teachers and leaders, or roughly one in 12.

Among teaching assistants and other school staff, 62,000 – or 8.9 per cent – were absent. There were also 315,000 pupils missing school because of reasons related to Covid-19.

Appearing before the Commons Education Select Committee on Wednesday, Mr Walker said: “We have seen of course huge challenges, and I’m extremely grateful to school leaders and teachers for the immense amount of work that they’ve put in to keep schools open.”

He went on: “What we’ve seen so far this year is some challenging levels of staff absence, but actually less than we had been projecting before the end of the year.

“We’ve taken a series of measures – whether we’re talking about vaccination, ventilation, masks – to try and support schools to remain open in all circumstances.”

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Mr Walker said the Government had not set a “specific threshold” at which schools should move online.

“At this stage, I don’t want to set an arbitrary figure where we say ‘if absence reached this level you would have to close down’, because we want to continue to work with schools to make sure they do everything they can to stay open,” he said.

Pepe Di’Iasio, the head of Wales High School in Sheffield, told i that staff absences at his school are currently at 8 per cent.

If this increases, he said the next step would be to merge “two or three classes” and to teach them in the school hall with a single teacher.

“As a short term measure we would do that if we felt that it would get us through for a day or two,” he said.

However, if absences neared 15 per cent, “at that point we then have to look at moving perhaps a year group virtually,” he said.

On Tuesday, i reported that schools were having to keep windows open even when it is snowing outside because of a lack of air purifiers.

However, Mr Walker defended the Government’s policy of only offering 7,000 free purifiers to mainstream schools.

“It’s not a case that there are 350,000 classrooms out there which are desperately in need of these devices and would benefit from them,” he said.

“They do make noise and they do require installation and they will cost some electricity to support.

“Providing that to every classroom would be a very poor of use of taxpayer’s money and could be disruptive and difficult for schools dealing with very difficult situations.”

Mr Walker also said that he would support reducing the self-isolation requirement from seven days “If the scientific advice shows that five days is safe”.



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