ASCL Cymru leader Eithne Hughes today warned that Covid is continuing to cause educational havoc as a survey conducted by the union revealed that almost 98% of headteachers say teaching and learning has been impacted by pupil and staff absence during the autumn term.
Nearly two thirds say the impact has been severe.
The survey also reveals that 82% of Welsh schools have up to 15% of their learners absent, whilst 92% have up to 15% of their staff off work for Covid-related reasons.
And it shows that most of the schools surveyed have been targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners, mainly through emails threatening legal action, but in some cases in communications threatening staff with physical harm. Others reported incidents in which protesters have gathered outside school gates to hand out leaflets.
Many respondents expressed grave concerns about local authorities, the Regional Improvement Services and Estyn ignoring the current crisis and piling further unhelpful pressure onto a system already at breaking point.
Serious concern was also expressed about the severe impact Covid disruption was having on exam groups and many leaders questioned how progress was possible on the Welsh government’s raft of educational reforms in the current situation.
Eithne Hughes, Director of ASCL Cymru, said: “There is absolutely no sign of life getting back to anything like normal in our schools. In fact, school leaders across Wales are at their wits end trying to deal with an incredibly disruptive cocktail of staff and student absence.
“Nearly one in five schools has up to 15% of its staff off sick and the problem is being exacerbated by a chronic shortage of suitably qualified supply staff caused by extraordinary levels of demand. Indeed, 94% of respondents said that it was difficult to find supply teachers and many heads are having no option other than to put their leadership duties to one side and return to frontline teaching
“We warned the government before the start of the autumn term that its flimsy framework of Covid contingencies was a recipe for disaster and we hate having to say we were right.
“The reality is that coronavirus continues to cause havoc every day to the education of children and young people across Wales and is putting schools under enormous pressure.
“We urge the Welsh government to listen to school leaders and not press ahead with its current reforms to education regardless of the current disruption. The system simply cannot take it.
“We further ask that sensible and flexible contingencies for any examination series are looked at urgently so that our learners are not further disadvantaged and school leaders are not expected to work miracles
The survey of 183 headteachers and principals of schools and colleges in Wales found:
- 98% (85) said teaching and learning had been impacted by Covid-related pupil and staff absence during the autumn term so far, with 64% (56) saying the impact was severe.
- Covid-related pupil absence was currently running at above 10% in 41 schools, and staff absence at above 10% in 24 schools.
- Nearly 95% of respondents said it was more difficult than normal to hire supply staff to cover for staff absence.
- 29% said that rates charged by agencies to hire supply staff were higher than normal.
- Most schools have been targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners mainly in the form of emails threatening legal action (77%).
- 21% reported seeing protesters immediately outside their school premises or in the immediate local area.
- Three schools said they had received communications threatening physical harm to staff, and one said protesters had gained access and protested inside the school premises.
Comments from headteachers included:
- “Government strategy seems to be to ensure everyone gets the virus. There is no other way to interpret the decreased level of Covid regulations. My school had no positive case throughout the 18 months until this term and now we are inundated; students, staff, children of staff, all having an impact on the quality of learning and the ability to provide a stable and consistent learning environment.”
- “This has been a terrible term so far. The disruption to learning, teaching and wellbeing has been significant.”
- “(The situation is) Woefully misunderstood and underestimated by Welsh Government, who are just not listening. The impact on staff and students is highly significant.”
- “We are not the school we were and cannot move at the pace we used to. The social and emotional changes in our children has been drastic. they have forgotten how to sit in a class and comply to the basic structures. Behaviour and everyday challenge such as uniform has deteriorated.”
- “At the moment, we have 30 out of 160 learners absent due to having Covid. We have a further 15 Year 11 learners off after receiving their vaccination. Trying to maintain any level of continuity in teaching and learning and making progress is nearly impossible.”
- “There appears to be no recognition of the challenges that schools are facing beyond platitudes. My overall school attendance is 87% at present, but this drops to 80% in Year 11. Factor in the teaching time related to staff absence and the fatigue amongst the profession and we are in a difficult place."
The survey was conducted via an email link to 183 headteachers and principals in Wales on 19 to 20 October. The majority of responses (89%) were from state-maintained secondary schools, with the rest being a mixture of primary and middle schools, colleges, special schools and independent schools.