Nothing is normal in schools now

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
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Past mistakes continue to be repeated by ministers even though we are more than two years into a pandemic that is still causing chaos, anxiety and huge workload pressures in schools, says Dr Mary Bousted

The government appears to be in denial about the impact that Covid is continuing to have in schools. Pupil absence is rising as the Omicron variant rips through the pupil population. The latest absence figures reveal that on March 17 nearly 160,000 pupils were absent because of Covid – a huge increase on the 45,000 recorded just two weeks earlier (DfE, 2022).

Teacher and leader absences have doubled to nearly 10% in the same period; 23% of schools had more than 15% of their teachers and leaders off with Covid.

Stress levels in schools are extremely high. There are not enough supply teachers to go round. The concept of “rarely cover” is a mirage as leaders ask their staff to cover the classes of absent colleagues.

Exhaustion is compounded by worry about GCSEs and A levels. What do you do to help the pupil who has caught Covid three times? How are they to be helped to cover lost ground? And what of the exam classes whose teachers are ill?

One parent recently told me that out of a four-period day, three of her son’s lessons were taken by cover teachers because their regular teachers were ill.

And yet, even with this level of disruption, the government and Ofqual are going ahead with increasing grade boundaries this year thus reducing the number of top A level grades by up to 25%.

The combination of harder exams and current levels of staff and student absence has the potential to be highly combustible. You would have thought, after two years of exam chaos, that government ministers would do all they possibly could to avoid this undesirable outcome. Apparently not.

Nothing is normal in schools now. Pupils in every year group are finding it difficult to make the adjustment back to school life. Many are highly anxious; some find it extremely difficult to re-enter school society. Teachers tell me that they are facing more disruptive behaviour as pupils bring their anxieties and worries about their lives into school.

And despite prime minister Boris Johnson declaring that education “catch-up” was the government’s biggest national challenge, he refused to accept the calculation of Sir Kevan Collins, the former education recovery tsar, that £15bn was needed to fund a broad and balanced recovery curriculum and to provide social and emotional support for pupils affected by the pandemic. Words are cheap but without real and concrete action the pupils who are suffering the most in the pandemic are left floundering.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP), sold off to Randstad, a company with no experience in tutoring but who happened to put in the lowest bid, has massively underperformed – the most recent confirmation of this fact coming from MPs on the Education Select Committee.

By the beginning of December 2021, only 8% of the more than half-a-million pupils targeted to receive tuition had received it. Randstad has abandoned its target that 65% of the pupils receiving tuition be disadvantaged.

As Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, has commented: “The requirement that two-thirds of pupils in the programme must be from disadvantaged backgrounds was in place for a reason: there is strong research evidence that poorer pupils have been the biggest losers from the pandemic, seeing greater attainment losses than their peers.”

Which leads me to one question. Have government education ministers learned nothing from the catalogue of failures which have dogged them and their predecessors since the arrival of Covid?

In meetings at the Department for Education I have been astounded at the apparent complacency and inaction of ministers as they fail to rise to the challenge of crises which could have been avoided if they had acknowledged the severity of the situation in schools.

Unfortunately, it appears that past mistakes are to be repeated.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Read her previous articles for SecEd via

Further information

  • DfE: Week 12: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, March 2022:
  • Education Select Committee: Is the catch-up programme fit for purpose? March 2022:


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