The closure of hundreds of schools across the country as a result of the recent Unison day of action over pensions can serve as a reminder of how essential support staff are for the day-to-day functioning of our schools.By Ruth Bradbury

The national remodelling agenda has created numerous roles, ranging from bursars and business managers to pastoral workers, cover supervisors and teaching assistants. As a consequence, there are very few areas of school life which do not depend in some way on the services and performance of staff who are not qualified teachers. Whereas there are many established (albeit expensive) systems for getting hold of supply teachers, including LEA lists and specialist agencies, there is currently little in place for support staff. In addition, the sheer range and variety of the roles that now exist mean that stand-in staff with the right skills will not be easy to find. Whilst there is no magic wand which can solve this problem, there are a number of strategies which can be considered:  

Local authority – many LA personnel departments have records of people who have experience of working in schools and who are looking for permanent or temporary work. It is certainly worth checking whether your authority offers this service and, if not, whether they would consider doing so.

Temping agencies – if the vacancy is administrative or secretarial, then it is relatively straightforward to get short-term replacements from an agency just by telephoning on the day. There are also a number of specialist IT agencies who can provide technical staff at short notice.

However, you need to bear in mind

  1. that you will end up paying a high level of commission to the agency, and
  2. that it is not likely that staff will have much relevant school experience.

Casual workers – it is worth building up a bank of potential casual workers, drawn from former staff who have retired, for example, or become stay-athome mums and who may looking for the odd bit of part-time work. It is also worth keeping records of people who have sent in speculative job applications or who have been unsuccessful (but not hopeless) at interview.

Existing staff – as I’ve already mentioned, the current diversity of support staff roles means that it is unlikely that you will always be able to find an appropriate cover at short notice. An alternative strategy, therefore, would be to set up an‘understudy’ scheme amongst your existing staff, where each person learns the key aspects of the role of another through a combination of discussion and work-shadowing. This can also be a way of providing additional interest and development opportunities for staff. If organised well, this could mean that the school could recruit agency staff to take on a more straightforward role whilst the ‘understudy’ performs that of the absent staff member.

Whatever method you use in your school, it is inevitable that it will have a financial impact, and it is therefore important to ensure that budgets are created to cover support staff absence. The size of the budget will depend on the size and complexity of the school and the past history of absences, but it needs to be there and it needs to be realistic. Without a budget, problems with absence will continue to grow as support staff numbers increase, and the smooth running of the school may ultimately be compromised.