Geography field trip? Foreseeable. Motorway pile-up? Unforeseeable. Flu epidemic? Well, that depends. In April, unforeseeable. In January, if your school had a similar epidemic at the same time last year, definitely foreseeable.
The guidelines surrounding the "rarely cover" rule are open to interpretation. But not wide open. Most local authorities accept that teachers should never have to cover unless a situation arises that is "unforeseeable". However, judging from a poll by teaching union the NASUWT, some heads are struggling to show much foresight. More than 60 per cent of teachers said their school was failing to comply with the rules, and among those asked to cover, a third felt that it was due to situations that could have been predicted.
Of course, no one expects heads to be clairvoyant. But schools should record staff absences and analyse trends. They should also have a policy outlining their strategies for dealing with absence - including the use of cover supervisors, supply teachers and temporary contracts. Only when the absence rate is markedly above the historical average should regular staff be asked to cover.
Inevitably, there are grey areas. Many teachers report being asked to cover when they have "gained time" - perhaps because the class they usually teach is out on a trip. According to Stephen Szemerenyi, pay and conditions expert at the Association of School and College Leaders, that goes against the rules.
Other teachers complain that their regular timetable has been increased, to counterbalance the "rarely cover" rule. Here, Mr Szemerenyi thinks that schools are within their rights.
"Teachers should consider their overall workload," he says. "If they have the right amount of PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time and are not being asked to cover, then a slight increase in teaching time may be acceptable."
One of the downsides of the "rarely cover" rule is that staff are sometimes refused permission to organise trips or attend training courses because schools can't afford the cover. Organisations such as the Field Studies Council and the National Science Learning Centre have reported a significant drop in bookings since September.
And heads are also less likely to grant unpaid leave of absence for funerals or medical appointments. "I couldn't go to a dentist's appointment, despite having a colleague who was volunteering to cover for me," says one Sheffield teacher. "The head felt it would set a precedent."
In some situations, though, you have a statutory right to leave of absence. For example, most authorities allow paid leave to attend the funeral of a parent, child or spouse, but not of a friend or more distant relative. You should also be granted time off for job interviews, civic duties and perhaps even moving house. But always try to give the school as much warning as possible - most heads admit that implementing the "rarely cover" rule has been a logistical challenge.
"I support the spirit of the rule," says Fiona Hammans, principal of Banbury School in Oxfordshire. "But it has been expensive, and there are always going to be difficult days when you have staff out on training, others on interview, and others call in sick. It is a shame we can't let staff fix up last-minute trips, or dash off to watch their child in the nativity play, but we just don't have that flexibility any more."
Still covering? Try this
- Keep a count. You shouldn't cover more than two or three hours a term.
- Always ask why you are needed for cover.
- Many schools are still tweaking their arrangements, so make short-term allowances.
- If you are unhappy, speak to the head. If that does not work, try the governors. "Rarely cover" is a legal obligation and they should ensure the school complies.