Welcome to the first edition of our new e-bulletin, School Financial Management, written by School Business Manager Lindsey Lester. This issue will be looking at the new staffing agreement of ‘rarely cover’

Welcome to the first edition of our new e-bulletin, School Financial Management. This fortnightly electronic newsletter, published alongside our print newsletter of the same name, will provide you with topical information and advice to support your work as school business manager. It will highlight key issues in the world of school business management, providing you with practical ideas and guidance to help you carry out your role with confidence.

Over the coming months we will look at:

  • equality and community cohesion
  • safeguarding – Ofsted inspection framework and the impact on business managers
  • working with governors
  • FMSiS
  • facilities management
  • risk assessments (all aspects of!)
  • induction of new staff
  • challenging behaviour
  • right to work in the UK
  • Investors in People
  • external funding
  • learning outside the classroom

In this issue I will be looking at the new staffing agreement of ‘rarely cover’. We hope you will find School Financial Management inspiring and thought-provoking, as well as offering some useful ideas and practical strategies for you to put into practice.

Rarely cover
Business managers with responsibility for human resources must ensure that implementation of the new agreement to ‘Rarely Cover’ does not have a detrimental effect on support staff roles and responsibilities, as there is a danger that schools may inadvertently resort to inappropriate deployment of support staff to fill the teaching gap. Business managers must be aware of the regulations in order to protect the school from employment tribunal claims.

From 1 September 2009 all schools should have implemented a robust system to ensure that teachers cover for absent colleagues only rarely. This system would need to encompass all ‘foreseeable’ events, but would not be expected to deal with ‘unforeseeable’ events. Schools should also bear in mind that ‘rarely’ does not mean ‘never’ www.tda.gov.uk.

However, I know that in some schools teacher definitions of what ‘rarely cover’ means, is just that, ‘never’, and asking a teacher to cover in an emergency can sometimes be very difficult. More directly relevant to most business managers, though, is the effect of ‘rarely cover’ on support staff.

Whole-school consultation
I have been lucky in that ‘rarely cover’ has been operating at our school for over three years, before the initiative was put in place and that our support staff were relatively prepared for the national roll out in September. For those schools who have not used support staff for cover, it is imperative for the headteacher to arrange a meeting with all staff (teachers and support staff) to outline and to clarify the issues related to the implementation of the objective of ‘teachers covering rarely’. Guidance on the rarely cover implementation process can be found on www.atl.org.uk/images/Rarely%20cover%20-%20guidance.pdf

Which member of the support staff team can cover a class?
The school has many options when it comes to planning to provide cover support:

  • cover supervisors, where cover supervision is the core role
  • teaching assistants (TAs) as part of a wider school role
  • higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) who (provided they meet the provisions of the Regulations*) can carry out ‘specified work’, including delivering lessons to students.
  • pastoral managers where cover supervision is only part of their time
  • multi-faceted role of which a part is cover (our librarian actually covers classes, she asked for it to be included in her job description as she felt that it was appropriate to her role as librarian. Covering classes gave her the opportunity to get to know the students and gain experience of class behaviour expectations.)

Obviously, schools also have the option of employing agency staff, supply teachers, floating staff. The school would have to make the decision as to which option is best for them, and of course we as business managers would be monitoring the budget to see what funds are available for this.

Role of the business manager
For those business managers who have responsibility for the teaching and learning support staff, it is vital that you ensure that any of your staff who are continually being deployed to do higher level work are not being asked to cover ‘specified work’ that is beyond their limitations. Cover staff may sometimes feel pressurised to undertake cover work at a moment’s notice, in particular covering an absence of a teacher who has gone home unwell. Business managers must be prepared to be involved in the decision making and challenge any bad practice; staff look to senior managers for support and guidance, it is imperative to be aware of when they can or cannot be used for cover.

Consider whether the cover to be undertaken is ‘cover supervision’ (where no active teaching is taking place) and a member of the support staff can be deployed, or ‘specified work’, which a member of the support staff may carry out, but the headteacher must be satisfied that the support staff member has the skills, expertise and experience required to carry out the ‘specified work’. In this instance, your HLTA would be the ideal person to cover the class. Schools sometimes forget the wider context of this role and only use their HLTA to cover planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. A HLTA can take responsibility for a whole class and deliver a lesson. But what is specified work?

Section 133 Regulations (see footnote 1) define ‘specified work’ as:a. planning and preparing lessons and courses for pupilsb. delivering lessons to pupils. This includes delivery via distance learning or computer-aided techniquesc. assessing the development, progress and attainment of pupils; and

d. reporting on the development, progress and attainment of pupils.

The Regulations also state that support staff may only carry out this specified work subject to a number of conditions:

  • the support staff member must carry out the ‘specified work’ in order to assist or support the work of a qualified teacher in the school
  • the support staff member must be subject to the direction and supervision of a qualified teacher in accordance with arrangements made by the headteacher of the school
  • the headteacher must be satisfied that the support staff member has the skills, expertise and experience required to carry out the ‘specified work’.

Employment contracts
I have found that one of the drawbacks of support staff being used for covering lessons is the use of split contracts. This is where a TA is deployed to cover a lesson and paid a higher rate, but once back into their normal role is paid at their normal lower rate. This is not in line with the aims of the workforce reform and the principles of the National Agreement, but it is still a major issue in schools. In fact, I understand that a TA could request that they only undertake four class periods a term and possibly even less, if they felt that the cover work was undermining their core TA role.

Reviewing the school’s absence and cover policies would be an ideal time to consult staff and gives them the opportunity to discuss the ending of split contracts. The school should also be monitoring and analysing patterns of absence and the levels of cover. It would be useful for the cover manager to keep a record of the amount of cover undertaken by each member of the cover team and for which teacher, thereby having documented evidence to support their case against split contracts.

The effect on staff at my own school has been quite mixed. The cover staff, where cover is their main role, were sometimes critical of the ‘cover work’ that was left by the teaching staff. It is important that teachers are aware of their responsibility and of what must be made available to cover staff:

  • register of students
  • seating plans
  • lesson plan
  • work sheets
  • instructions to cover staff
  • school’s behaviour steps.

Our HLTA is responsible for the management of cover and she has held regular meetings with the teaching staff explaining the role of the cover support staff and provided them with packs on what cover staff should expect to receive. This has been quite successful and we have seen a significant improvement in the work provided to cover teacher absence. In the case of sickness absence, where work may not have been provided, we have a ‘bank’ of curriculum resources for each subject area and year group. Cover staff can use these resources when no work has been left.

The new rarely cover initiative also brings the opportunity to revisit and reinforce training – what should be expected of our cover staff and do they have the necessary skills to undertake these duties. I believe that the most vital element of rarely cover is the impact on the teaching and learning of our students. Students’ learning should not be put at risk and our cover staff should only be used for short-term teacher absences. Medium to long-term teacher absence should be covered by a teacher on a fixed-term contract or supply teacher.

The most pivotal role in the training/induction of cover staff is the person who manages your cover. At our school the HLTA is responsible for the induction and line management of all cover supervisors. I know that in some schools the cover managers are teaching staff, but I have seen first-hand the dedication and professionalism of our HLTA who manages the whole process of cover and I have no anxiety in stating that a member of the support staff team can be the person to manage the cover process.

The induction that a member of the cover staff undertakes should be personal to that member of staff. If new to the role and inexperienced, a specific period of induction should take place. At our school (and the process can be at your discretion) the induction process lasts for two weeks and in that time the employee ‘shadows’ our experienced cover supervisor. They also spend time with the SEN department to familiarise themselves with students who may be in the class they are covering. They will also attend behaviour management courses, but in the meantime will be shown the school’s own ‘Behaviour Steps’. The member of staff is also given an induction pack, which includes all the information they require, including timetables of teaching staff and the staff handbook. At the end of the induction period the employee can request a further period of induction. However, there is also the possibility that a member of your support team simply does not feel comfortable covering a class, even though it is a part of their job description. This could be for a number of reasons: new to the role, not coping with the behaviour of students in the class or ‘out of touch’ with cover, which can be the case for a TA who only covers classes ‘once in a while’.

I believe that ensuring your cover staff are happy in their roles is vital in developing students’ learning. If you are new to school business management and have never worked inside a classroom, take time out to shadow your own cover supervisors, get to know your team, how they work, the pressures they are under. In this way you will best be able to understand and support your cover team.

The TDA has excellent information on rarely cover which can be found on the following web address: www.tda.gov.uk/remodelling/nationalagreement/cover

Interesting news!
Perusing the TES online I found an interesting forum on ‘Curriculum Supervisors’. Apparently the change of job title reflects a slightly different approach to the use of cover supervisors. The forum states:

‘The role is designed to allow a reduction in staffing. Instead of a teacher teaching four periods, the system allows for three periods with a teacher and one with a curriculum supervisor. This is allowing schools to reduce their staffing bill, potentially by 12.5%’

I have no further information and neither has my headteacher heard of it; if anyone has any news I would be interested to hear, as it may be local to a specific area. I will be investigating further and will bring any updates to our readers.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Lindsey Lester is School Business Manager at St Martins Catholic School, Leicester