It's a common scene in schools everywhere. Monday morning, 8.15. The cover list goes up on a staffroom wall, greeted by angry cries: "Oh no, not me again"; "There goes my free period"; "Why am I on again?"
More often than not the anxiety is directed at the one poor staff member responsible for organising the rota. It's a thankless task, as Mick Macve, head of maths at Oakmeeds community college in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, knows. "Cover is such a disruption to people's routine," he says. "No one looks forward to it. It's a source of frustration, but it's essential to keep the school running."
Mr Macve draws up the cover list at Oakmeeds - a mixed comprehensive with more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds - and takes the resulting flak, every week. Or he did until recently. A couple of months ago, over a few Friday night pints with an old friend, David Crosby, Mr Macve came up with a revolutionary notion: it was time to make cover creative, to replace the weekly frustration with fantasy fun.
Mr Macve, clearly a man of many talents, also organises the school's highly successful fantasy football league, involving 28 staff members and 60-odd children. "We were talking about football," he says, "and David said simply: 'Fantasy cover'. I admit I wasn't sober at the time, but when we worked out the details, I realised it could work."
Mr Macve didn't discard this "crazy" notion, even when he woke up the next day. Instead, he sat down soberly that Saturday to write the rules, and by Monday morning they were posted in every staff member's pigeonhole. The Oakmeeds Fantasy Cover League was born.
"It was the week before Christmas, which is a funny time anyway," he says. "People took it as a bit of a joke, which is what it is really."
Joke or not, the league started in earnest at the beginning of this term. It works like this. Every member of staff who wants to enter picks five colleagues to be in their five-a-side fantasy cover team. The rules say they must be a player-manager (play for their own side), and pick one member of senior management, one head of house and one head of faculty in their line-up.
Each staff member is weighted according to the number of free periods they have, and each time they are called up to cover a lesson, the team they "play" for is awarded an appropriate number of points. The team captain scores double, as does anybody who covers a "work-related learning group".
It's all worked out using the same computer database that sets the timetable and organises the cover rota. Naturally, Mr Macve is not allowed to enter a team himself, but there are prizes (of the liquid variety) for manager of the month and manager of the term.
"At last teachers are getting rewarded for doing cover," says Mr Macve, who uses a spreadsheet to work out the points, and posts the league positions on a fantasy cover website each week. "It takes about an hour on Friday night," he says. Not a huge effort for changing his colleagues' attitudes to a once-dreaded task and removing himself from the vortex of Monday morning anger.
"Before this, the only emotion I got as cover organiser was frustration. Now it's a source of enjoyment. People are happy to do it." In place of the old moans and whinges, teachers talk about their cover teams in staff meetings and search the cover rota for their team-mates' names. "Someone even said: 'Why haven't I done any cover this week?' That's not happened before."
Then there are the team names: "No frees please, we're British" and "Colds r Us". PE teacher John Franks, head of Year 7, has a team called "I'm always available". He says:"Apparently, if we'd run the system in the first term, I'd have been top. But I'm not doing so well now, about 15th out of 20.
"Seriously though, at least it's improved people's attitudes a bit. Obviously people don't like doing cover but this is a good team-building exercise. It taps into people's sense of fun and competitive instincts."
The scheme also has the backing of senior managers - even the head has a team (although he's currently bottom of the league). For them, it also has a serious point in keeping up staff morale and maintaining teachers' faith in a necessary chore. As Mr Macve says: "Teachers go on courses, get sick, whatever. But kids still need teachers."
To find out which team is in line to win Oakmeeds's cover team trophy, click on www3.mistral.co.ukmmacvefantasycover.html, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org