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Dear Ted

I lose most of my free periods to cover lessons. I love my job as a secondary teacher, but I want a life. What can I do?

Ted Wragg, former professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Ted says

Many schools have been facing serious problems with staff sickness and other absences and not enough money to buy in proper supply teaching. In an ideal world every school would have "permanent" substitute teachers available for cover duties.

Some old lags make a bog-up of covering so they don't get asked again. But that is unfair to the children. They often groan when a replacement walks through the door, even if it is a teacher they know, because they suspect that, once more, they will be told to "just carry on with your work" instead of being taught.

Rather than fight a lone battle, or be seen as an individual whinger, you should ask for this matter to be addressed at a staff meeting, especially if your colleagues are also grumbling. The group needs to explore whether it is impossible to buy in any regular cover, or what other solutions might be possible, since the Government is supposed to be addressing the issue of workload.

If you are the only teacher losing so many free periods, then this raises the matter of equity. Is the extra work being dumped mainly on newcomers? If you are in your first year or two you may well be keen, but you also need free time to build up ideas and resources. Are the willing or compliant being targeted? Do the smart people sprint through the door when they spot the deputy head approaching with a piece of paper? Such issues need to be deliberated.

If all else fails, you may have to seek a job elsewhere, but only as a last resort.

You say

Why is it necessary?

Look at why so much cover is needed. Is it due to staff illness, teachers out on courses or trips, invigilation or other specific needs of your school?

As the co-ordinator of cover in a large community college, I use a variety of strategies for covering teacher absences. All staff are allocated a number of non-contact periods; NQTs and teachers with responsibilities have more. Some staff are part of a dedicated coverInset team and have lessons allocated to it on their timetable.

During the exam season, teachers freed from teaching are redirected to invigilation. Teachers who take students out on visits include supply cover in their costings.

We use internal cover for the first three days of any staff illness; after that, we bring in supply staff.

Nina Ward, Leicestershire

Be grateful for what you have

Thank your lucky stars that you at least have the chance of three or four free periods! In the secondary special school in which I work, we are each timetabled for one hour of non-contact time per week when our classes are supposed to be taught PE by a specialist. However, this time is eaten into as we have to supervise pupils who are slow at getting changed, have behaviour problems or, for some other reason, cannot join the group at the beginning of the lesson.

Margaret Raine, Houghton le Spring, Tyne and Wear

Try going part-time

This is one of the biggest crises any teacher has to face. Absences that take away all your free periods speak volumes for the working conditions at your school, so it's likely that whatever option you choose, it will mean an upheaval. If you don't want to move schools, going part-time may help.

The catch is that working three days a week does not always mean a similar reduction in preparation and admin time. You also need to have a long-term plan in terms of pensions and how you want your career to develop.

Michael Todd, York

Check the records

In a well-managed secondary school you should not lose more than one hour per week on cover duty. Ask your union representative to find out what records are kept by the cover administrator to ensure that the burden is shared equally. If you are in a school with a problem of long-term absences known in advance, after three days the school should be seeking to bring in supply teachers to take on the cover role.

Marlene Griffin, Hitchin, Herts

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