How many staff have to be off before a school closes?

With increasing numbers of school staff having to isolate, Tes asks the DfE about the rules on keeping schools open
15th November 2020, 8:00am


How many staff have to be off before a school closes?
Coronavirus: How Many Teachers Have To Be Off Before A School Closes?

In any other year, the onset of the annual flu season would cause headaches - literally and metaphorically - for school leaders. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the pressures on school staffing are bigger than ever.

As staff members self-isolate in increasing numbers, schools need to flex and adapt in order to keep their doors open. It all begs the question, how many teachers does a school legally need in order to keep running? And if staff illness is up, what are the implications for the supply teaching budget?  

Coronavirus staffing problems 

There are other questions, too. To what extent, for example, can teaching assistants step up to the plate and take classes themselves? And if Covid-19 means a teacher and their pupils are self-isolating but are otherwise feeling well, should classes simply continue live, online?

We have taken these queries to the Department for Education, and a spokesperson has responded.

Many teachers will be taking sick leave in the coming weeks, while others will have to isolate at home. What guidance is available to schools regarding the level of staffing required for a school to remain open?

The Department for Education's regional schools commissioners, local authorities and trusts are on hand to support with any concerns over staffing capacity.

Our guidance outlines a number of options for schools to consider if they are facing staff shortages or capacity issues, including using staff more flexibly, supply staff, recruiting both permanent and short-term staff via our Teaching Vacancies Service and utilising trainees.

The department does not provide centralised guidance on the necessary level of staffing for schools as different types and sizes of schools will have different workforce requirements.

If a school has so many ill teachers that it is unable to operate, what are its legal obligations to parents and pupils? And what action will the government take if a school is forced to close?

The DfE's regional schools commissioners, local authorities and trusts are on hand to support with any concerns over staffing capacity.

We expect schools to make every effort to provide the maximum possible amount of face-to-face education to pupils in their schools. If schools need to close to year groups or the entire school, it should be as a last resort, with a view to using the time closed to put in place measures to quickly reopen.

If a teacher is well enough to teach, but has to isolate, is there an expectation that they will lead a class via an online video call? If so, should that class continue to come into school for the call, or stay at home?

Teachers are able to lead remote education classes via digital education platforms if they need to isolate but are well. Working arrangements for staff will be agreed at school level. Pupils should continue to attend school if they have not been asked to isolate.

The government is funding expert technical support to help schools set up secure user accounts for Google and Microsoft's education platforms. Schools can apply for government-funded support through The Key for School Leaders to get set up on one of two free-to-use digital education platforms: G Suite for Education or Office 365 Education.

What are the rules around teaching assistants leading classes in the event of a qualified teacher shortage?

As stated in our guidance: where support staff capacity is available, schools may consider using this to support catch-up provision or targeted interventions. Teaching assistants may also be deployed to lead groups or cover lessons, under the direction and supervision of a qualified, or nominated, teacher (under the Education (Specified Work) (England) Regulations 2012 for maintained schools and non-maintained special schools and in accordance with the freedoms provided under the funding agreement for academies). Any redeployments should not be at the expense of supporting pupils with SEND.

Headteachers should be satisfied that the person has the appropriate skills, expertise and experience to carry out the work, and discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff. 

This includes ensuring that safe ratios are met and specific training undertaken, for any interventions or care for pupils with complex needs where specific training or specific ratios are required.

Are there any plans to make additional budget available to schools to hire supply teachers if they experience high levels of teacher absenteeism as a result of Covid-19 and seasonal illness?

Following last year's spending round, school budgets are rising by the highest amount in a decade - £2.6 billion in 2020-21, £4.8 billion in 2021-22 and £7.1 billion in 2022-23, compared to 2019-20.

On top of the core funding schools are receiving, and continued to receive throughout the pandemic, we provide pupil premium funding worth £2.4 billion each year to support the most disadvantaged pupils.

Our £1 billion covid catch-up fund has provision both for additional tutoring targeted at the most disadvantaged, and flexible funding for schools to use to help all their pupils make up for lost education.

Schools should use these existing resources in making arrangements for the autumn term.


James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, says:

Most schools will have local contacts and existing arrangements in place when it comes to accessing supply teachers. The major challenge they face currently is not having the budget to be able to afford them. This is one of the main reasons why we're seeing so many schools trying to find ways to cover classes internally.

Ultimately, schools will always have to carry out risk assessments if they are beginning to face staff shortages and they will explore a variety of options to try and ensure they have the staff they need. However, schools can only keep all classes open as far as it is safe to do so.

It is important to reiterate that the live streaming of lessons is not the only option when it comes to providing remote learning, and the guidance from government does not specifically require that schools provide live-streamed lessons. Some will have chosen to do that, but we know there are other approaches that work, too.

In its responses to these questions, the government is ignoring an important, fundamental point: school budgets this year were set prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. That means that every pound that is now being spent on Covid safety measures is a pound that was previously allocated for pupils' education.

That money is now being used to pay for costs that no one could have anticipated when budgets were set. Furthermore, we know that many schools have only seen a 1.8 per cent increase in their budgets this year.


Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:

Schools are working very hard to remain fully open to all their pupils, often in extremely difficult circumstances. There is clearly a risk that staff absence - because of sickness or the need to self-isolate in line with Covid protocols - will mean that classes or year groups have to be sent home.

In extreme cases, the staffing level may fall to a point where it is not safe for the school to remain open and a decision is made to close. 

Supply cover provides a solution but it may not always be possible to arrange at short notice, and schools cannot afford the spiralling cost of hiring supply staff caused by this emergency situation.

The government must reimburse schools and colleges for these costs. Its refusal to do so thus far shows a lack of understanding about the severity of the situation and a lack of support for the education system.

The last thing any school wants is to be in a situation whereby it has to send home year groups or make a decision to close. A decision to close is particularly serious and would obviously be taken only when there is no other option available and in consultation with governing bodies, local authorities and trusts as appropriate.

Where staff have to self-isolate in line with Covid protocols, but are well enough to work, it may be possible for them to lead a class via an online platform, and, indeed, this has happened in some schools. This is done with support staff in the classroom to manage the class. This is extremely challenging, but some schools have been able to make it work as a short-term solution.

Schools are conscious of the government guidance over teaching assistants leading classes and will make arrangements accordingly, if necessary. There are many excellent teaching assistants in our schools and great credit should go to them for all they are doing in this crisis as well as in normal times.

The government has refused to reimburse schools and colleges for the costs of implementing the safety measures necessary for full reopening from September onwards, and it has also refused to reimburse them for the mounting cost of hiring supply staff to cover for teacher absence. This expenditure is significant and unsustainable on budgets that are already extremely tight. 

The additional investment in schools through to 2023 was announced by the government before the coronavirus outbreak even began so could hardly have been intended to cover these costs. It is, in any case, largely absorbed by pay awards, rising pupil numbers and general inflation. 

The pupil premium and Covid catch-up fund is intended to support pupils, not enhanced cleaning rotas and emergency supply cover, as the government is well aware. It should put its money where its mouth is, and provide proper support to schools and colleges.

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

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