Teacher absences are the biggest barrier to children recovering the learning lost during the pandemic, according to head teachers in England, as new data showed that shortages in key subjects such as physics are becoming worse.
More than half of the 1,000 senior teachers in England surveyed by The Key – a support service for school leaders – said they had insufficient staff due to absences, caused by Covid and illnesses, to help pupils fill the gaps arising from school closures.
“Staff absences are having a massive impact,” one respondent said. “Children learn best with their own teacher, not supply teachers.”
Three-quarters of those surveyed said their pupils were “behind” or “significantly behind” compared with previous years.
Nicola West Jones, head of research at The Key, said: “Many of the comments left in our survey point to reduced resilience, concentration and stamina among pupils in the classroom – all crucial prerequisites for learning. This, coupled with ongoing staff and pupil absences, explains why progress is going to take some time.”
A final report on how pupils in England have fared, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that children in Year 1 and Year 2 remain two to three months behind in reading ability, compared with pre-pandemic cohorts.
The study assessed children aged five to seven in maths and reading, most recently in July. It showed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds had been particularly affected, with a widening gap to their better-off peers.
“Schools’ ability to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic is mainly constrained by the resources available to them and it is vital that their important work with children at the beginning of their educational journey is not shackled by insufficient funding by the government,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
But teachers in specialist subjects such as sciences and languages are likely to remain in short supply in England, after the Department for Education revealed that the pandemic’s boost to teacher recruitment last year has disappeared.
Just 22% of the new physics teachers forecast by the DfE have been recruited this year, along with only 71% for modern foreign languages, 69% for computing, 45% for business studies and 23% for design and technology.
Other subjects where recruitment fell short of demand included maths and geography, prompting unions to warn of a shortage of secondary school teachers at a time when pupil numbers are rising.
Last year, there was a welcome spike in applications for initial teacher training, amid fears over the impact of the pandemic on jobs. Just 82% of the DfE’s target for secondary trainees was reached this year, well short of last year’s peak of 103% and below even the 83% achieved in 2019.
The government enjoyed greater success among would-be primary school teachers, achieving 136% of its target.
James Zuccollo, director for school workforce at the Education Policy Institute, said: “Historical trends tell us that when the economic picture of a country improves, fewer graduates are likely to go into teaching, but the speed of the national recovery and improvement of the wider UK labour market have meant that this drop-off in teacher recruitment numbers has occurred much more suddenly than expected.”
The DfE said it was investing “millions in bursaries and salary boosts” to attract graduates in high-demand subjects into teaching.