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Make sure you are well covered

In one of my anxiety dreams, I was asked to cover a rugby class. Thank goodness it was only a dream! But many teachers have to take lessons they haven't planned, in subjects they know nothing about and which give them the heebie-jeebies.

Schools vary in the amount of cover they ask new teachers to do. In some, they're used only as a last resort; in others, their goodwill and enthusiasm are shamelessly exploited. "Doing cover day-in day-out demoralises staff and would be the single thing that would make me leave the profession," writes a contributor to The TES website. Another covered a Year 7 class for ICT: "They didn't know their passwords and I hadn't a clue where to find help."

Practical subjects are notoriously hard, even when work has been left.

Safety is a key issue. If there's an accident, the legal position is that the employer (the local education authority or governing body) has ultimate responsibility.

According to Whitehall advice*, teachers' responsibilities include:

* taking reasonable steps to ensure their own safety;

* carrying out work in accordance with training and instructions; and

* informing the employer of serious risks.

So, for instance, a science teacher who was asked to cover a PE class playing netball decided that this was a safety risk and did a theory lesson instead.

Unfortunately, nobody can refuse to cover. The letter of the law is in Teachers' Pay and Conditions 2003. You're expected to do what the head asks of you and that includes covering for colleagues for the first three days of their absence.

New teachers are not exempt, although lots of schools try not to use them at least for the first term. Certainly don't let cover eat into your 10 per cent reduced induction timetable. If you earmark free periods for induction and arrange to be doing some professional development in them, they're less likely to get taken away.

Or be bold, like the NQT who wrote on the cover slip, "I thought I was on a 90 per cent protected timetable. However, if there is an emergency, please let me know".

Now, that's what I call being assertive!

* Health and Safety: Responsibilities and Powers (Ref: DfES08032001)

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