Paying peanuts for cover makes monkeys of us all

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Jo West

Lying drowsily on a hospital trolley, as the anaesthetic drips into his arm, a patient overhears the following conversation.

"I hear the surgeon's off sick, so we've got a cover surgeon."

"What's a cover surgeon?"

"Does the same job as a regular surgeon, but for half the money."

"Oh. I see. Is he qualified?"

"Probably. This hospital only really likes to employ qualified cover surgeons."

"Oh good. So he'll be able to carry out the operation then?"

"Well, officially he's not supposed to operate. But operations are what surgeons do, so I expect he will."

The patient struggles feebly on the bed as the anaesthetic takes hold and he falls into an uneasy stupor.

Imagine being minutes away from the operating table and realising a "cut-price" surgeon, or someone who isn't even qualified, is about to open you up. Don't get depressed, it hasn't happened, although perhaps I have given the Government ideas - it's one way to reduce NHS waiting times.

I'm sure you have all worked out where this analogy is leading - cover supervisors, the bane of my life. Cover supervisors are a relatively new species of school staff. For the past four or five years, they have been infiltrating territory formerly belonging to the supply teacher and have significantly reduced their number in much the same way as the rapacious grey squirrel all but wiped out the red squirrel.

Anyone can be a cover supervisor. You don't need a degree and you don't require a teaching qualification. How many parents would be happy to hear that their offspring were being taught by an unqualified staff member? This bright idea was initially devised to free up teaching staff from having to cover for others in the event of sickness or leave of absence. Historically, that's where supply staff came in: when a full-time member of staff was absent, a fully qualified teacher would step into their shoes. But not any more. In an underhand move, designed to penny-pinch and reduce educational spending, this new monster was created.

As I have said, it is not a prerequisite of the job to hold a teaching qualification. Cover supervisors have been recruited from a wide variety of backgrounds, including youth work, administration and dinner ladies. They are employed on the premise that work is supplied by the specific academic department and all the cover supervisor has to do is simply hand out the work and supervise classroom behaviour, being under no obligation (and, indeed, in many cases, being totally unable) to teach.

Colin Edwards told us about his personal experience in The Guardian in 2007. A writer with no teaching qualification, Mr Edwards secured a job as a cover supervisor and was routinely expected to teach maths even though at interview he had explained that maths was anathema to him. He found his short-lived teaching career gruelling and admitted at the end of the piece that "the children deserved better". Compromising on cost will inevitably lead to a decrease in academic standards, affecting pupils' education and the reputation of the school.

A number of schools have recruited cover supervisors from the teaching profession. It's much better to have qualified staff in front of our classes, that's why we have teachers - people who have spent time and money going to university and have a passion for the subject they studied. I have a degree from Royal Holloway, University of London, in German and English. It took me four years to get it, and then I had to take a PGCE course for a further year to enable me to teach.

Some schools seem positively gleeful that they are paying fully-qualified teachers a fraction of their rightful salary because they are employed as cover supervisors. They know that a teacher will not just hand out work and supervise the class; a teacher will indubitably endeavour to teach. It seems totally unethical to appoint a teacher as a cover supervisor. I understand the argument that schools cannot afford to employ extra teaching personnel full-time at their correct salary to simply cover staff sickness, but that is why there are supply teachers. They exist in much the same way as locum doctors - providing a qualified service for a professional rate of pay.

With many teachers leaving the profession disenchanted, we should perhaps be thinking of ways to improve the conditions of those still committed enough to want to be educators of children. NQTs who can't find a permanent position immediately after graduating are faced with ever-dwindling opportunities for supply work, and often find themselves taking a cover supervisor position, rather than giving up teaching altogether. Unfair treatment breeds resentment and discontentment. All employees deserve to feel valued as opposed to being treated as a commodity that may be purchased at a knock-down price and pushed into the profession's value range.

Jo West is a supply teacher based in Cardiff.

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