Teacher absences can cause financial difficulties. There is no easy solution to the problem of supply cover costs, but more effective management can reduce negative impacts. Ruth Bradbury shares her advice

The issue of cover for teaching staff absence affects all areas of school life. In terms of core business, the frequent use of supply teachers by schools can have a negative impact on the quality of learning and teaching and thus on achievement. This can in turn lead some pupils to disengage from learning, thus contributing to behaviour problems. The use of existing teaching staff for cover has always had a negative impact on staff morale, and since the implementation of the national teachers’ workload agreement, the introduction of PPA and restrictions on the use of ‘gained time’ there have been significant limitations on the amount of internal cover that can be used. This has exacerbated the already hefty financial cost of teaching staff absence: supply teaching staff can cost between £150 and £250 per day, and it is not unusual for a large secondary school to spend sums in excess of £100,000 pa on supply teaching. It could be argued then that schools are spending substantial amounts of money each year on something which will probably reduce the quality of their provision! In addition, supply teaching is probably the least predictable or controllable area of expenditure for most schools, and can quite easily be the main contributory factor in overspends.

As any school business/finance manager will know, there is no easy solution to the problem of supply cover costs. As long as there is a statutory requirement for supervision of students in lessons, and as long as there is staff absence, there will continue to be financial and organisational implications. However, the effective management of some aspects of teaching cover can help to reduce the impact. In this article I shall identify and offer practical advice on a number of ways in which this can be achieved.

1.    Cover policy
A school-wide cover policy will ensure that everybody – including staff, students and parents – is aware of the school’s procedures in relation to teacher absence. In addition, the process of drafting a policy will have the effect of focusing the leadership team and/or other staff on existing procedures and encourage them to consider whether these are a) effective and b) consistent. Policies may differ from school to school, but could include:

  • an outline of circumstances in which existing teaching staff will be used for cover
  • the process by which existing staff will be chosen for cover – eg rota system
  • weekly/termly limits for cover for existing staff
  • circumstances in which supply teachers will be used (eg to cover absences known in advance/after the third day of sickness absence)
  • procedures for staff to notify absences known in advance and for the approval of such absences
  • the school’s approach in relation to non-teachers (eg cover supervisors) covering classes
  • details of who is responsible for organising, managing and allocating cover
  • details of who is responsible for setting work for cover lessons
  • sources of supply teachers (eg agencies, local authority) and confirmation of policy on CRB checks
  • induction procedures for supply teachers
  • procedures for monitoring of levels of cover – eg reports on number of covers each week; number of covers taught by non-subject specialists etc
  • procedures for monitoring the effectiveness of cover, including methods of evaluating the performance of supply teachers and effectiveness of cover lessons/supply teachers.

Example cover policies from a number of schools (primary and secondary) are available in the DfES Value for Money Unit document Using Supply Teachers to Cover Short-term Absences, which can be found at www.dfes.gov.uk/valueformoney/docs/VFM_Document_12.pdf

2.    Supply cover insurance
Many schools purchase insurance to provide cover for some of the costs of supply teachers, either via a local authority scheme or direct from insurance companies. The purchase of insurance can assist with the stability of the budgeting process as it will protect against the costs of long-term absences and reduce the element of unpredictability. However, premiums can be high – insurance companies are profit-making after all – and there is no insurance policy that will wipe out all of your supply teaching costs. For example, most companies will only pay out after the school has already funded a set number of days’ absence (in effect an insurance excess, but often termed a ‘waiting period’) and the rate of payment per day (‘daily benefit’) may often be lower than the daily cost of a supply teacher from an agency, leaving the school to foot the bill for the difference. Many insurance policies will not pay out for staff who are absent with back pain (one of the most common long-term complaints), and there are usually additional restrictions – a 10-day waiting period, for example – in relation to stress-related absences.

The decision whether to take out supply cover insurance or not is ultimately one for the headteacher and/or governing body. In order to inform their decision, it is possible to carry out a retrospective analysis of previous years’ costs as follows:
If your school does not currently purchase supply insurance:

  • Obtain quotations for your school from two or three companies offering supply cover. These should not be indicative quotes, but actual proposed premiums based on current staffing levels, previous absence records etc.
  • Using sickness records and/or the software used for allocating daily teaching cover, build up a picture of staff sickness absence over the last one or two financial years.
  • Apply each insurance company’s specific terms and conditions – waiting period and daily benefit – to the past sickness records to see how much would have been received as income under the policy. Don’t forget to discount any absences not covered by the policy, eg back problems.
  • Take the actual supply teaching costs for the years in question and add an inflation rate to bring them up to the current year’s prices (2.5% pa would be acceptable). Add the proposed annual insurance premium to those costs and then deduct the potential insurance income calculated in step C.
  • This figure(s) will be an approximation of how much would have been spent in the year(s) in question if the school had taken out insurance. Compare this to the actual cost of supply teaching to see if there would have been a gain or a loss through insurance.

If your school currently purchases supply insurance, then take the total number of days of supply cover used in the year in question and multiply it by the average cost of a day’s supply cover. This will give you the amount you would have spent if the school had no insurance, and this can then be compared to the actual sum spent on insurance plus supply teaching costs not covered.

Of course, calculations like those outlined above can only ever be a guide, as they tell you retrospectively which would have been the ‘better’ course of action. There is no guarantee that future sickness absence patterns will reflect those in the past, especially if you have a high staff turnover. However, the calculations will enable the school to approach the decision in a logical way and to make that decision based on the best information available.

3.    Cover supervisors
One alternative to supply teaching is the employment of cover supervisors.  Normally not qualified teachers, these staff are paid on the APT&C pay spine (scale 4/5 is typical) and their main role is to supervise classes when teachers are absent. Cover supervisors are being employed by an increasing number of schools, and the benefits of this include:

  • As permanent school staff, cover supervisors are known to teachers and students and they understand the procedures and routines of the school.
  • Unlike many agency supply teachers, who may only be in school for the odd day, cover supervisors are able to build relationships with pupils, to gain respect and to follow up on discipline issues.
  • Pay rates are significantly lower than those of supply teachers, and there is no agency fee.
  • As they are employed as support staff, cover supervisors can be contracted to work a 37-hour week and can thus contribute to before- and after-school activities.
  • When not being used for cover, they can provide assistance to teaching departments in administration, displays etc.

There are of course some potentially less positive aspects too. In some schools there may still be a resistance on the part of staff and/or parents to the use of people who are not trained teachers to supervise classes. It is also true that the absence of teacher training may lead to classroom management issues, especially if cover supervisors are not appropriately trained or supported. Unlike ad-hoc supply teaching, cover supervisors are a long-term financial commitment and will be an expense to the school even if there is little or no staff absence. Finally, the type of individuals who go for cover supervisor roles – often graduates considering PGCE – means that there will be a comparatively high staff turnover with associated recruitment costs and periods of vacancies.

If your school does commit to the employment of cover supervisors, then there are a number of things which can be done to make sure that they are as effective as possible. These include:

  • Careful recruitment and selection – ensure that interviewers are very clear about what they want, and that the selection process is designed to test relevant skills. Examples of this could include specifying that applicants must have experience of working with children or young people, and including a 15-minute cover lesson as part of the interview.
  • Effective induction – give all new cover supervisors the opportunity to observe a number of lessons taught by experienced teachers before taking classes on their own. Ensure that they are fully appraised of school policies and procedures, including school rules and any behaviour codes.
  • Training and support – ensure that cover supervisors have access to training in classroom management, and that any further or ongoing training needs are identified and assessed.
  • Clear line management – the role of the cover supervisor sits between the teaching and support staff structures, so line management is not clear-cut. Furthermore, a cover supervisor will be working in all departments at some time or another. It is therefore vital that there is one clear point of contact to whom they can direct any queries. This should probably be somebody in a team-leader role on the support staff side with a broad understanding of classroom issues.
  • Clarity of role – make sure that job descriptions are clear, and that cover supervisors are aware of what they are required to do – and also what they are not required to do. Should they issue their own detentions, for example, or refer to other staff? Do they know what to do if they experience problems during a lesson? Are they aware of what they should be doing if they are not being used for cover?
  • Effective communication – establish protocols for dialogue between teachers and cover supervisors – eg lesson feedback forms where the supervisor can provide a brief overview of achievement and behaviour of classes to their regular teachers.

The lower salaries and permanent staff status of cover supervisors mean that there should be reductions in costs and an increase in financial stability/
predictability if they are used. Nevertheless, the roles will not entirely banish the requirement for supply teachers. First of all, there will always be times of high staff absence when additional temporary support will be needed. Secondly, teaching union guidance states that it should not be normal practice for cover supervisors to cover long-term absences of teaching staff. While schools may employ some flexibility in the way that they interpret this, it is not good practice for cover supervisors to end up covering the same classes for months on end: however good they are, it is likely that students’ learning will suffer if there is no subject specialist available to teach them. 

4.    Other strategies
By its very nature, the majority of work in managing and organising teaching cover is reactive in nature. Nevertheless, there are some proactive strategies which can be employed by schools to minimise long-term the amount of cover required and/or the associated costs. Examples of these include:

  • Flexible days – while sickness absence constitutes much of the requirement for teaching cover, educational visits and activities can also take their toll. The recent regulations concerning ‘gained time’ mean that teaching staff freed up when their classes are on trips cannot be used to cover those staff who are out unless it contributes to their maximum 38 hours per year cover allocation. In reality then, this means that school trips will incur substantial supply teaching costs. One way of reducing the impact of this is to operate a system of ‘off timetable days’ when the normal timetable is suspended and all year groups take part in curriculum enrichment activities, including educational visits. Visits taking place outside of these days can then be limited and approved only if there is a strong case. Flexible days can also have a curriculum benefit as it allows for longer blocks of time and encourages teaching staff to be creative in their approach.
  • Professional development – another significant factor in teaching cover is the time lost when staff attend courses. While there is no doubt that much professional development is necessary, there are often cases where two or three people from the same school attend very similar courses. It may therefore be worth schools considering whether external training could be cut down and replaced by more internal cascading and sharing of best practice at meetings and Inset days.
  • Managing sickness absence – increasingly, local authorities and schools are implementing firm policies for managing sickness absence. I wrote about this in detail in issue 80 of School Financial Management, but key features of this kind of policy could include:
    • firming up of sickness reporting procedures
    • return to work interviews
    • occupational health referrals
    • supportive discussions for staff with high levels of sickness.

5.    Getting the best from supply teachers
Whatever measures your school may take, it is inevitable that there will be some times when you will need to use supply teachers. Very often, these staff are booked at the last minute and will arrive in school to be greeted by a harassed member of staff who hands them a list of lessons and dashes off. They will then have to find their own way around the school, including negotiating locked classroom doors, tracking down class lists (or not) and finding the location of the toilets. I will therefore conclude this article by making some suggestions for ways of ensuring that supply teachers’ time in school is managed effectively, thus enabling you – and them – to get the best out of the time that they spend with you.

  • Standard induction pack – to all supply teachers who come to the school. This could include:
    • timings of the school day
    • school rules/behaviour codes
    • details of any in-class support systems
    • a map of the site (with toilets marked!)
    • staff list, including job titles and teaching rooms
    • emergency evacuation procedures
    • lesson feedback forms to be completed for each class.
  • Specific information – alongside the induction pack, detailing:
    • cover slip for the day
    • class lists for lessons to be covered (ideally with student photographs)
    • cover work, or details of where this can be found
    • seating plans for classes (if absence is a planned one)
    • a note of any special events taking place that day.
  • Equipment – missing stationery can be a cause of much low-level disruption in classrooms. Providing a supply teacher with a box of paper, pens, pencils, rulers etc to give out to students can minimise this.
  • Support – inform the head of department if a supply teacher is being used in their area, and ask them to look in on them at least once each lesson; arrange for a member of administrative staff to check on supply teachers a couple of times in the day to see if they have everything they need.

Further Information