Teacher absence masterclass: Rarely cover - Searching for cover

21st August 2009 at 01:00
There is some confusion and concern surrounding the `rarely cover' rule. Here's all you need to know before the new term

Original magazine headline: Masterclass - Rarely cover - Searching for cover

From September, teachers should only be asked to cover for absent colleagues on rare occasions in unforeseeable situations. But what does this mean in reality?

New "rarely cover" legislation now features in the revised School Teachers' Pay and Conditions document. It applies to unexpected cover for absence; it does not apply to cover arrangements that have been planned as part of the school calendar and means that schools are not allowed to timetable regular teachers as "available for cover". However, a teacher can still have a timetable that includes regular sessions covering, for example, a colleague's PPA time.

In preparation for it, schools have been asked to analyse their historical patterns of absence, and to publish a teaching calendar that will minimise the need for last-minute cover arrangements.

Heads are concerned that "rarely cover" will hamstring flexibility, limit school trips and harm pupil outcomes.

There is no easy answer, but schools worried about resourcing could try to tackle the issue in a number of ways. These include reviewing your leave of absence policy, using cover supervisors or higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs), creating a learning centre and employing "floating" teachers or supply teachers. Splitting teaching groups is seen as cover and will not be allowed.

The Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG) found that just 30 per cent of absence was down to illness, concluding that tighter restrictions on leave are possible. However, the National Union of Teachers has said it is opposed to any renegotiation of leave entitlements, and a leave policy that encroaches on local authority contracts is not permitted. Plus, schools must take account of national employment regulations that allow leave for circumstances such as hospital appointments, caring for dependents, emergencies or religious events.

Employing full-time cover supervisors could provide an affordable and flexible in-house solution. There are also benefits in managing and developing staff who know the school and its pupils. But cover supervisors are not allowed to teach. They should only carry out set exercises, and teachers will still need to prepare the lessons.

Schools might also consider whether cover supervisors have the teaching capacity and subject knowledge needed to push pupils forwards. Some schools have opted to attach cover supervisors to departments, but cover supervision is still only recommended for short-term absence.

HLTAs are more expensive than cover supervisors, but they are allowed to plan and prepare lessons under the guidance of a teacher and might offer a good solution to short-term absences. However, they should not spend the majority of their time taking whole classes.

You could think about setting up a learning centre. For example, an ICT suite with 30 or more workstations could act as a fallback option for covering lessons. It can be supervised by support staff and your school will also benefit from an additional ICT resource. However, setting up something like this would require time and money, and lessons would have to be planned in advance for each department.

An easy but expensive option to cope with the new rarely cover regulations would be to use supply teachers. Last year schools in Cheshire spent more than pound;2.9m on supply teachers. However, there are obvious benefits to using a qualified teacher who is a specialist in the subject.

The rarely cover legislation also allows schools to use floating teachers who are employed wholly or mainly for the purpose of providing cover. A floating teacher can work at one school or across a cluster or local authority. However, as cover won't always be required, any plans for a floating teacher will need to be designed around your historical patterns of absence.

WAMG also allows schools to amend teachers' timetables to accommodate educational visits or activities. But changes should be kept to a minimum and agreed with staff as far in advance as possible. The NUT is opposed to this kind of re-timetabling.

Another common practice, splitting classes of pupils who need supervision and allocating them to another class, is seen as providing cover. Therefore from September this situation should only occur rarely, and as a last resort. There is no one solution for rarely cover. But whichever route you take you should ask yourself: "Is this the best option for the pupils?"

Joe Blair is specialist researcher in staffing issues at The Key, an independent service that supports school leaders by providing answers to their questions on all aspects of school leadership and management. www.usethekey.org.uk

Unexpected cover: your options

- Use cover supervisors or higher level teaching assistances (HLTAs).

- Create a learning centre.

- Employ "floating teachers" or supply teachers.

- Review your leave of absence policy. This sets out what qualifies for leave, whether it's paid, its length and whether the school has the authority to grant it.

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