Case study: the early morning phone call

6th February 2004 at 00:00
We can't control illness; we can only react to the phone calls. Suddenly there's a bug going round. We've got eight out, then nine, then 12. Sarah's already left for a course in Bristol. Get Phil back from his course? What's the point? That absence has been planned. Get a supply? Only if he or she can get here for the first lesson. I'm not paying for anyone to work less than a full day. Send the kids home? Not practical. Their parents are at work.

Carol cancels a meeting with a parent and doubles up. Derek runs a long assembly, which gives us a bit of breathing space. But period 4 is a real problem. We've run out of teachers. I go to the hall, where I supervise more than 100 students. No work is done; it's an exercise in containment.

Naturally, Kaylee takes advantage. She goes up to the third floor and throws paint at a boy below. She misses and covers a visitor's car in white emulsion. Molly is found in the loo with her mobile phone, planning a liaison with the school stud. We use up more teacher resources than we can afford sorting these things out. The head of English puts most of Year 11 in one room and gives them a lecture on Of Mice and Men. The students are resentful. They want a free lesson. All over the school are children who expect to do no work. They are excitable, feeding off the atmosphere.

We get through the day. We always do. The staff have worked together to manage a difficult situation. But teaching? Don't make me laugh.

We can all tell this story, the way a day will suddenly fall apart because we haven't enough teachers. The part that upsets me most is the way illness erodes staff morale. Teachers like to think of themselves as a team. That belief is undermined when they feel taken for a ride by colleagues. They feel that difficulties are being shovelled on to the conscientious. Soon they too will crack. "See I told you all along it was a dodgy school. Look what it has done to you."

But they shouldn't always blame the school or the senior management. It is their colleagues who are at fault. Ask around in every staffroom and the teachers will tell you who is always ready to pull a fast one. Every organisation needs to deal with illness, but in teaching the work cannot be postponed. The class is there, waiting to be taught. I can't put Year 9 in the pending tray to be dealt with tomorrow. They are there. And staff get ratty. No one wants to take an extra lesson.

Other important work isn't completed because of the need to get a body in front of a class. Strategic planning and staff development go out of the window. Free lessons disappear. The fact that most of their primary colleagues still don't get them is immaterial. They are a right. Someone's ill-health is now a petty act of revenge, targeted to ruin your day. A day can quickly become an exercise in crisis management.

But the big, dramatic days aren't the issue. On these occasions everyone does come together. It is the insidious accumulation of absence that bites, that steals time. Everyone is busy. Everyone is doing something vital.

Everyone believes someone else should cover a class. But whether willing or not, someone has to do it. And when you look at the statistics, too many classes are supervised, not taught. And that is the point.

Parents send their children to school for one thing, and then we say we can't provide it. Kids sit around. They do nothing. And another part of their education is wasted.

Supply staff are indispensable but they can't solve the issue of the early morning phone call. Long-term sick I can manage more effectively. We can re-deploy staff within departments to maximise experience. Staff are always prepared to take on an extra lesson or two to preserve the exam classes. We can have a structured response that minimises the disruption. The real problems emerge with the unexpected absence; the head-cold, the stomach disorder.

We have a duty to examine staff attendance. We need to draw conclusions. Is there a particular class that staff want to avoid? If so, we need to do something about it. Are patterns emerging in staff attendance over a week or a year? If so, then we need to do something about that too. Because, in the end, the school exists to provide a continuous meaningful education to the students. And when it doesn't do that, it fails.

We need to look at what is causing poor attendance and offer support where we can. But we should not be afraid of disciplinary action when necessary, because the whole school suffers when teachers don't turn up for work.

Geoff Brookes

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed community school, Swansea

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