What keeps me awake at night - Front line is no place for cover

15th July 2011 at 01:00
Anonymous views from education's front line

This week: a supply teacher in Wales

Why did I do it? I left teaching 15 years ago after a two-year apprenticeship in a Welsh secondary school and headed off for London and a career in journalism. I had a few good moments, such as covering the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and reporting on an attempted suicide-bombing in Tel Aviv. But at the age of 30 I was in the family way and it became apparent that newspapers were no place for a mother.

Eight years later, back in my native country and with the kids in school, I looked at my options. The best one seemed to involve my little-remembered PGCE: I joined the supply-teacher circuit.

Supply was not completely new to me. I had done a bit between my teaching job and a journalism course, and I had vowed never to return. It was one thing to cover history, my own subject, but another to try teaching maths, science or technology. However, a few weeks ago I supervised children drilling holes into a plastic sheet using a machine that looked like it could tear your limbs apart.

So what has changed? Supply teaching used to be a case of putting your name on a list with schools or the council. In fact, it was mostly done by teachers on free lessons - a particular bugbear at the time.

These days, free lessons are largely protected and the whole supply process is controlled by agencies. Everything is more professional. Upon turning up at a school, you are usually supplied with a pack that includes maps, computer registration information and even behaviour management advice. Work is usually left for you to follow and there is a general understanding that supply teachers should not be left in the lurch with nothing to do. With this comes less money. Fifteen years ago I received #163;100 a day, yet today's rate is actually less.

Something else is happening: more and more schools are now opting for "cover supervision". The theory is that the work involved does not require a qualified teacher. In reality cover supervisors are nearly always teachers who simply have to accept a reduced wage.

Yet a typical cover lesson "plan" is two sentences scribbled on a piece of a paper, usually involving questions from a textbook that are invariably too hard for half the class. So what do I do? I attempt to teach. So much for "cover supervision".

This is fine if the class is issue-free, but often there are a few pupils who are disruptive or have learning problems. Now a mother myself, I feel strongly that every second counts in education. But these children are falling through the cracks.

My days on the supply circuit are numbered. Unlike those PGCE students who can't get jobs, I don't have to do this forever or full-time. But it has opened my eyes and made me worry about my own children's future in the state secondary system.

To tell us what terrifies you or to share the unscripted events that have happened in your classroom, email michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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