Schools' supply cover is running on empty

Councils claim reduced pay is major culprit in staff shortages

Emma Seith

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One in three councils are struggling to secure classroom cover because of cuts to supply teachers' pay, an exclusive TESS survey has found.

The poll revealed that all but three of the 28 councils that responded are having problems recruiting supply teachers for their schools. Eleven of the 28 authorities blamed pay cuts for at least part of the problem. The country's remaining four councils did not provide any information.

Councils highlighted other difficulties that are contributing to Scotland's supply-teacher crisis, ranging from a general teacher shortage and poor workforce planning to house prices and the remote nature of some rural areas.

The lack of supply staff has resulted in some schools having to extend assemblies and leave students in canteens because cover is not available.

But teachers and leaders stressed that pay -which was reduced in 2011 for periods of five days or less - was the problem that needed to be addressed most urgently.

Full-time teachers are missing out on training and time to get to grips with the new curriculum and qualifications because of a lack of supply staff, said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of headteachers' organisation, School Leaders Scotland.

"The vast majority of schools are struggling to get supply teachers," he said. "That puts a real squeeze on internal cover within schools and the more you squeeze, the less time you have for staff to do other duties that are pretty essential."

He added: "You will find now that there are some headteachers taking classes and deputes with fuller timetables." In the past, he said, supply teacher numbers had been boosted by retired teachers, but they were not willing to work for the reduced rates of pay introduced two years ago.

General secretary of the EIS union, Larry Flanagan agreed that retired teachers now felt supply was "not worth the hassle", given the pay. "We are looking for some resolution to this issue through the ongoing pay negotiations. Some progress on this is essential if broader pay issues are to be looked at," he said.

Improving rates for short-term supply teaching has been the main barrier to reaching a pay deal for the profession as a whole. Pay and conditions talks have been ongoing since January but, although a provisional deal on teachers' working conditions was reached in February, talks have stalled over the supply issue.

According to Cosla, the local authorities umbrella body, it would cost "several millions of pounds" to restore supply teachers' pay and "councils simply cannot afford to absorb this cost".

The tripartite Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers next meets in October; the EIS is hoping for a resolution by then, Mr Flanagan said.

When councils were asked by TESS whether they were having difficulties in securing supply teachers, only Stirling, South Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire answered that they were not. However, East Dunbartonshire added that although it had no difficulty in recruiting supply teachers, they were often unavailable to work. South Lanarkshire said it was having "some difficulty" getting supply teachers for rural primaries and certain secondary subjects such as home economics. Only Stirling reported no problems at all.

Of the remaining 25 councils who responded, two said they were experiencing problems recruiting at primary level, three at secondary level and 20 at both.

Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Borders, Perth and Kinross, and West Dunbartonshire were among the councils that believed pay cuts were at least part of the problem.

An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said: "The agreement to maintain teacher numbers has meant that more teachers are being employed on permanent or fixed-term contracts, meaning that there are fewer teachers available for supply. This, in conjunction with the pay cut, has led to the difficulties."

East Renfrewshire was experiencing problems securing secondary supply but did not put its troubles down to pay; instead, it said, too few teachers had qualified in subjects such as business studies, chemistry, computing, drama and music.

Surprisingly, Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh, also reported that it was struggling to find cover for absent teachers. David Wright, senior education manager for schools at the council, said that pay had been "a major difficulty" initially but that the main problem now was an increase in permanent posts in the city, which had cut the numbers of supply staff.

Photo credit: Getty

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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