Some schools are planning to increase their class sizes to up to 60 pupils so that they can continue to offer students an education this term, as fears grow of a looming teacher shortage.

Headteachers are worried that a significant number of staff will need to self-isolate for long periods this winter as they struggle to gain access to tests for Covid-19, and that schools will soon run out of money to pay for cover from supply teachers.

Vic Goddard, co-principal at Passmores Academy in Harlow and star of the Channel 4 series Educating Essex, has already set up his school hall like an exam hall so that a “masterclass” of up to 60 pupils could be taught inside by one teacher plus one or two support staff, if needed. “I can’t see us getting through this half-term without there being some major doubling up or tripling up of classes,” he said.

A recent survey by the National Association of Head Teachers found that 45% of schools have teachers who are currently unable to attend because they are awaiting a coronavirus test, and spokesman James Bowen warned it would not be surprising if schools suffered from “a shortage of supply teachers” as winter begins.

Yet, despite the “abject failure of the testing system” and corresponding increase in staff absences, he said schools were receiving no financial support from the government to pay for the extra supply teachers they needed, leaving many schools to try to cover absences “internally”. “Many [school] budgets simply won’t stretch to meet these supply costs,” he said.

Louise Atkinson, vice-president of the National Education Union, said a few schools had already had to shut because of a shortage of staff, and it was “inevitable” that more would need to close as virus cases continued to rise. “The current situation is unsustainable,” she said.

Currently, around 8% of Goddard’s staff are absent from school awaiting test results, and it is taking about five days for each teacher who develops symptoms (or lives with someone else who is symptomatic) to be tested and cleared for a return. He said he “cannot afford” to bring in supply teachers and was therefore planning “contingencies on contingencies on contingencies” to keep children in school.

“My worry is that staff absences are only going to accumulate,” he said. “It won’t take much – in certain subjects, it won’t take much at all – for us to have nobody within the school who can teach that subject or even cover and deliver the lessons.”

One science teacher at a north London school taught back-to-back triple lessons to a class of 60 children in his school hall last week after a colleague called in sick with a temperature. “I’m fairly confident this will happen again,” he wrote on Twitter, and offered his tips to other teachers facing the same situation, such as speaking loudly from his diaphragm and using a “massive” projector screen. He expects that teaching a class that size “sadly, will have to remain an option” at his school: combining his class with his colleague’s in this way had “saved 60 kids from having to stare at a textbook for three lessons straight”.

At another school, Southend High School for Boys, the headteacher, Robin Bevan, is feeling “deeply worried” about the second wave of infections. Last week, two of his teachers stayed off school to isolate. If there is an escalation in the number of positive cases, he fears “10 or more teachers” may have to self-isolate at a time. “Sustaining high-quality education at that point becomes almost impossible. Supply teachers are hard to find, and our annual budget for cover would disappear in weeks.”

Last Friday, the Association of School and College Leaders warned the “catch-up funding” – given to schools to provide pupils with extra support after five months off in lockdown – would be “wiped out” by Covid safety measures and the cost of supply cover for teachers in self-isolation. “Many schools will be reliant upon supply teachers to provide cover when permanent staff have to self-isolate in line with Covid safety guidance. The biggest concern we are picking up is the costs involved, which can be very significant. We are pressing the government to reimburse these and other substantial costs incurred in implementing Covid safety measures because school budgets cannot take this hit,” said the general secretary, Geoff Barton.

A spokesperson for the DfE did not comment on the prospect of class sizes of up to 60, but said that they “recognise that schools will have had to take measures to become covid-secure, as part of their hugely successful work to get the vast majority of children back to the classroom for the autumn term”.

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