Head changes cover system for absent teachers after pupils set fire to classroom. William Stewart reports
The final straw for headteacher Sylvia Moore came when pupils being taught by a supply teacher set fire to the corner of a classroom. Mrs Moore says the teacher concerned was standing outside the room running a business from his mobile phone - and was oblivious to the large hole being burned in the wall.
It was the latest in a long line of incidents that prompted Mrs Moore, head of Francis Combe school, Watford, to stop using supply teachers, replacing them with an in-house team of support staff.
"I am not saying that all supply teachers are naff," she said. "But the ones we had were. We had one woman who spent a whole term knitting a jumper when she should have been teaching.We watched it grow."
Her teachers were reluctant to attend courses, fearing the chaos that would greet them when they returned. Support staff said they could not take it any more and only trouble-making pupils were happy.
One boy had been heard to say: "Oh good another supply teacher, now we'll have some fun."
"It was just awful," Mrs Moore recalled. "We knew we had to do something."
For the past two academic years all cover for absent teachers has been provided by 24 support staff. These paraprofessionals, the product of in-house training, have been pivotal to the change in the way the 900-pupil comprehensive is organised.
The team provides pupils, many of whom come from difficult home backgrounds, with extra pastoral and academic support. It has also eased teacher workload, ending the recruitment problems of a school traditionally overshadowed by its selective neighbours.
All teachers are freed from the classroom for at least 16 per cent of their week, two years ahead of the workforce agreement deadline.
"We recognise this is a challenging school and we use the benefits we offer to teachers in our marketing material," said Mrs Moore.
She has also improved her own work-life balance by employing her partner David Cook, a former head, to take over the day-to-day running of the school for two days a week while she concentrates on the big picture.
The system has been introduced without extra cost because of the savings on supply teacher costs and management allowances that had been paid to teachers for some of the duties now carried out by support staff.
The paraprofessionals are responsible for pupil behaviour, monitoring homework completion, helping pupils with personal problems and providing a link with parents.
They work out of three study centres which also act as a base for the pupils.
Steve McShannon, a former pupil at the school who has a youth service background, heads the paraprofessional team.
He said: "The centres are their home from home. It is where they come when they have lost their bag, had a bust-up with a friend, are being bullied or just want do homework."
His team carry out detailed reviews of pupils' behaviour and academic progress that evena form teacher would find impossible.
They are paid from pound;12,000 to pound;35,000, and are part of a collegiate system that gives them equal status with teachers, who have welcomed them.
Linda Halford, head of English, said: "This has brought us together as a staff. I think in a school like this, that is very valuable."
It is also bringing results. The percentage of homework completed by key stage 4 pupils has risen to 80 to 90 per cent, from less than 50 per cent two years ago, and the school is expecting the proportion of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs this year to rise from 17 per cent to the low 30s this summer.