Around 500 former teachers have signed up with supply agencies to tackle staff shortages in England’s schools, data suggests.
It comes after Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi urged ex-teachers to temporarily return to the profession to help with Covid-19 absences.
Initial data published by the Department for Education (DfE) – from around 10% of supply agencies – suggests 485 former teachers have signed up.
Meanwhile, a further 100 of Teach First alumni – who trained to become teachers through their programme but now work outside the profession – have “expressed an interest” in supporting the workforce.
But heads’ unions said the numbers “barely scratch the surface” and are “a drop in the ocean” compared to the challenge caused by the Omicron variant.
The warning comes after the DfE estimated that one in 12 (8.6%) of teachers and school leaders in England – around 44,000 of staff – were absent at the start of term last week, up from 8.0% on December 16.
Meanwhile, some 4.9% of teachers and school leaders were off school due to Covid-related reasons on January 6, up from 3.0% on December 16.
Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “These figures show the Government’s reliance on the good will of ex-teachers alone is an utterly inadequate answer to staffing shortages, equating to just one additional teacher for every 50 schools.
“Ventilation, vaccination and testing are key to keeping schools moving, but with thousands of children learning in freezing classrooms, nearly two million pupils unvaccinated and families unable to access tests the government is once again falling short.
“Ministers must urgently step-up to secure our children’s learning and their futures with a credible plan to tackle workforce absences and ventilate schools to keep children learning together in class.”
Last month, Mr Zahawi called on former teachers to apply to return and to start the process before Christmas Eve to help with shortages in January.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are delighted that these former teachers have come forward to help out schools in what is clearly an hour of great need, and we thank them for their efforts.
“However, the numbers quoted by the government barely scratch the surface of the huge level of staff absence caused by Covid-19.
“This initiative, while well-intentioned, was too little, too late, and the government should put more resources and effort into supporting measures to reduce the risk of transmission such as ventilation and testing.
“It should also be doing more to support schools and colleges with the significant costs involved in hiring supply teachers to plug the gaps caused by Covid. The current scheme to provide financial assistance has so many complex conditions attached that it is inaccessible in many cases.”
The latest DfE data also reveals that 8.9% of teaching assistants and other staff – around 62,000 – were off on January 6, up from 7.3% on December 16.
Some 5.0% of teaching assistants and other staff were off school for Covid-related reasons on January 6, up from 2.3% on December 16.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Unfortunately, the number of former teachers who have returned to classrooms is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge faced.
“The latest government figures show that over 40,000 teachers were absent from the workforce in the first week of term.”
He added: “The numbers of returning teachers we have seen, whilst welcome, do not come close to solving that level of staff absence. Realistically, schools are still facing an exceptionally challenging time.
“Despite the tireless work of school leaders and their teams, and the immense good will of every teacher who has returned to help out, there is no escaping the fact that if a school has a quarter of its workforce off, that will have a significant impact on education.”
But the DfE has said the actual number of ex-teachers who have signed up is likely to be much larger given the size of the sample – and it has stressed that the call for ex-teachers to return is still ongoing.
Some volunteers may have approached schools directly and this would not be captured in this figure, it added.
Mr Zahawi said: “Making sure all children and young people can attend school or college remains my number one priority.
“I want to thank all former teachers who have come forward to support the national effort and help keep our children in face-to-face education. I call on all other former teachers who are able to do the same to come forward now.
“The vaccine continues to help us pave the way out of this pandemic and more than ever it is absolutely vital that all those eligible get their booster or second jab, as well as continuing to test regularly.”