I used to dread Sunday night phone calls when I was an acting head. These would be from conscientious staff members phoning to inform me that they would not be in the next day. Dealing with teacher absence is one of the bugbears of senior management, but there are ways of making it bearable.
Being organised helps. Have a system for notification so that you know as early as possible when staff are not coming in. A folder in the school office with contact details for reliable supply staff is also useful.
In the summer and autumn terms, new potential supply staff often contact schools to seek a new placement. This is a good time to have a semi interview to ascertain their training, ensure they have relevant experience and Criminal Records Bureau clearance. It is good practice to seek references or call the previous school they worked at and ask if they would be used again.
At some point, a crisis will occur and supply staff will be required at short, or even no notice. That is when many schools contact agencies. These can be useful, but vet each agency used and read the small print in contracts.
Ensure that clear work and expectations are left and organised for planned absences, but for unexpected cover, the supply teacher should have their own work. Every supply teacher needs to know details about the class they are taking, including any special needs or requirements, and the names and details of teaching or support assistants.
Many schools provide new supply staff with a potted guide to the school, including details such as first aid provision, fire drills, child protection details, behaviour management strategies and details of breaks.
Ensure the staff in the school office are expecting the supply teacher and are ready to brief them and show them the facilities and the classroom. Happy, supported and confident supply staff will return and provide welcome continuity for children.
Having been a supply teacher myself, I have been into schools where no one shows you where the toilets are, the location of the photocopier or how it works, or even what to do when a Year 5 child sits under a table shouting, "condom, condom, condom!" Clear communication, expectations and guidance are central to successful supply cover, be it for a day, a week, or longer.
Cost issues can be vital. If a member of staff is ill, try to find out tactfully when they may be back. A day could be covered by the current teaching staff or the head. After that it becomes more difficult and expensive, but the insurance must be checked to see when payment kicks in. It is usually after three days, but it can vary. Discourage staff from being off, coming back, then being off again, as the three days must run together.
Covering non-teaching staff can be difficult, although supply agencies cater for teaching assistants and nursery nurses. Many large secondaries have cover assistants who can step in. Whoever you're covering, ensure that staff are thanked and remunerated.
Kate Aspin is senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University.
Supply teacher tips
- Plan: Ensure everyone knows the drill for absence
- Prepare: Staff should provide work to cover planned absence and give supply staff an idea where the class is up to. Make a small information booklet to give to new staff
- Support: Welcome supply staff, brief them and give them a named staff member who will check on them during the day
- Contingency: Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and serve dinners, sweep up or go back to the chalkface yourself
- Check: Qualifications, child protection issues, insurance details and agency fees.