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The perfect cover story

Forget supply staff - one school's supervisors are easing the strain on teachers. Gerald Haigh reports

A teacher rushes into school carrying the usual armful of books and boxes.

There are three people to see and the first lesson to sort out before morning briefing. What extra annoyance would now cause her to fling her stuff on the staffroom table and swear? It is, of course, the news that because another teacher has phoned in sick, she is going to lose a precious non-contact period.

For teachers, losing non-contact time to cover for absent colleagues is irritating and disruptive. The concern for heads is not only that it damages morale but also that it eats into planning and development time.

Given the non-contact time targets that schools face under workforce remodelling, one answer is to look at using cover supervisors: adults who are not teachers but are trained to look after classes when teachers are not available. It is a seductive solution. Because cover supervisors are cheaper, schools can afford enough of them to make a significant difference to the amount of cover teachers have to do. The benefits are seen in staff morale and the possibility of scheduling meetings and professional development sessions in school time.

At Easington community school in Durham, employing three cover supervisors meant that last term, teachers provided 282 hours of cover - compared with 580 hours in the same term in 2002. Teachers no longer gather round the noticeboard looking for which classes they are going to be covering, says headteacher Paul McHugh. "It's a change of perception. Instead of expecting that they'll be covering, they now see it as a rarity."

In 2002, Easington was suffering hugely from staff absence. The supply budget was under strain and so were the teachers. Year groups were twice sent home for lack of staff to teach them. When the Office for Standards in Education arrived in October 2002, the school was 13 teachers short, through absence and vacancies, and went into special measures.

Keeping classes covered was a constant battle. The result was instability - pupils saw the arrival of a supply teacher as a signal to relax and misbehave.

Consequently, when the Easington and Seaham education action zone put the idea of cover supervisors to local heads, Easington was one of four schools to take up the idea. Easington took on three people at classroom assistant rates: Hayley Dixon, a former pupil who was working as a special needs assistant; Margaret Hawkes, a local woman with a daughter in the school and experience as a classroom assistant; and graduate Helen McKendrick, who hopes to move on to primary teacher training.

By contrast with a "here today, gone tomorrow" supply teacher, these are people who belong to the school, know the children, and know the systems.

Margaret Hawkes says: "We build relationships with the pupils. In the early days they assumed we were supply, but gradually they realised we were here to stay."

Crucial to the whole exercise is the way the cover supervisors are supported. Departments have to set good and effective work for classes that are being covered, and the disciplinary system has to work well, with senior teachers on call if they are needed. At the end of each lesson the cover supervisor writes a brief log of any problems. Comments have to be frank and must be followed up.

There is no doubt, though, that discipline in covered lessons has improved.

"When we had supply teachers I'd be called to incidents twice a day," says Mr McHugh. "I was called just once in the whole of last term."

Undoubtedly the real key to improved discipline lies in the stability that the cover supervisors have brought, together with their personal enthusiasm and commitment to the pupils. The scheme may have contributed to reduced staff sickness rates and teachers have gained in other ways too. "The supervisors are here to ensure that non-contact time is protected. Now each teacher has three hours a week protected - four for managers. We can free people to work on specific developments," says Mr McHugh.

What, though, of fears that teacher professionalism may be damaged by cover supervisors?

Trevor Blacklock is the local divisional secretary of the National Union of Teachers, which opposes classroom assistants being allowed to teach. He is concerned supervisors could reduce the supply available to teachers.

He says: "I can understand the use of supervisors to save teachers having to cover, but it's got to be the case that teachers teach and supervisors assist."

"It's not been an issue with our staff," says Mr McHugh, who notes that his cover supervisors are not employed to teach.

That point is emphasised by Dame Sheila Wallis. She runs Wallis Partnership, which provided the initial training for the EAZ's cover supervisors and managers, and is working with other schools and authorities.

"Cover supervisors do not teach. They are there to supervise children whose learning has been organised by a teacher, and there must not be any fudging of that line," says Dame Sheila.

Meanwhile, Easington has learned a great deal about the contribution that people who are not teachers can make to a school. Cover supervisor Hayley Dixon is 19 and showing confidence well beyond her years. For her, the post is part of a long-term plan to become a primary school teacher. She was a special needs support assistant at Easington when the cover supervisors'

posts came up.

She was nervous at first: "I do struggle with a few of the students, but it's very rare that I feel uncomfortable. And of course, there's plenty of support."

It's not difficult to see how her enthusiasm and commitment will ultimately engage the classes she covers. Meanwhile, the school is helping her to improve her qualifications, and she's enrolling on a part-time access to teaching course at the local further education college.

"Our cover supervisors have taught us that age and inexperience are not a barrier to competence in the workplace.

"The key is enthusiasm and a liking for working with young people," says Mr McHugh.

Supporting supervisors

* Clarify for everyone how they fit into the school structure;

* Give them the same authority as teachers;

* Make them part of a recognised team, such as a department or faculty;

* Give effective induction which becomes part of whole-school professional development;

* Ensure that good and plentiful work is set for covered classes;

* Provide access to resources - stationery, computers;

* Give them time for their own professional development;

* Ensure that overall planning of lessons is excellent.

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