Who's sitting in teacher's chair?

11th April 2008 at 01:00
The boundaries between cover supervisors and qualified teachers are becoming blurred, reports William Stewart

When Sue Carter attended an interview for a job as a cover supervisor this year, she was shocked by what she found.

The advertisement for the post at a Hertfordshire comprehensive said that, as per government regulations, it would involve only supervising work set by absent teachers and that "planning, teaching and marking are NOT required".

That reassured Ms Carter, who had worked as a teaching assistant but has no qualifications beyond O-levels. When she arrived at the school, she was asked to sit in on a Year 7 French lesson with an existing cover supervisor.

"I expected the cover supervisor to give out worksheets andor inform the children what they were to do, and then merely sit with them while they got on with the predetermined tasks," she said.

"So I was surprised when the cover supervisor actually took the whole lesson, as the teacher would have done, working from the textbook and doing everything a fully qualified teacher would have done."

That should not happen, according to guidance drawn up by the Government, employers and their partner unions about how and when cover supervisors should be used (see panel below).

Ms Carter walked out of her interview. Her experience will fuel concerns that some schools are using cover supervisors as "cut-price teachers", even though they are not allowed to teach because they are unqualified.

A petition on the Number 10 Downing Street website closed last month with more than 700 signatures expressing disappointment that many lessons or days are "covered", and calling for the Prime Minister to "demand that all children are taught by a fully qualified teacher or supply teacher".

The TES online staffroom and message boards for cover supervisors offer further evidence of growing unease about the role schools expect them to play.

One contributor wrote: "Unqualified teachers are being used to teach children. To think otherwise, that the 'rules' are either being rigidly adhered to, or enforced, is naive in the extreme."

The cover supervisor role was introduced to English schools in the wake of the workforce agreement signed by the Government and most school staff unions in 2003.

Under the deal, teachers are expected to provide no more than 38 hours' cover a year for absent or sick colleagues, with the long-term aim that teachers "rarely cover at all". To achieve this, cover supervisors can pick up the slack.

No specific qualifications are needed. But those in favour see them as a more sensible solution than supply teachers, who are often unfamiliar with the school and will do little more than hand out pre-set work anyway. Cover supervisors can also hand out work, but if they are permanently based in school they are familiar with pupils and behaviour policies. They are also cheaper.

Keith Herrington works as a cover supervisor at Tewkesbury School in Gloucestershire for "much, much less" than a supply teacher. Although he has a PGCE and a masters degree in education, the retired police officer, in his late forties, is happy with his role.

He believes schools should follow the example of Tewkesbury and make the role a "positive and rewarding experience".

The school has provided its five supervisors with regular training days, laptops, peer mentoring, and renamed them "learning advisers" so pupils give them more respect. But Mr Herrington admits they can overstep their official role - because government guidance is a "bit woolly", and it is difficult to draw a definite line between what is and is not teaching. "Most feel that if they didn't do some aspect of teaching and build some sort of rapport with the children, then the job couldn't be done," he said. "There should be no teaching taking place, but there is bound to be a little bit."

Headteachers' leaders agree with him. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I think it is very difficult to be in a classroom without teaching. The temptation to teach must be very strong when you see a child that needs a bit of help and you are the person in the room that can give it."

He believes the guidance his association agreed with other unions, employers and the Government, may be a case of "one size fits all".

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, also admits there "a fine line" between teaching and cover.

This worries Tony Callaghan, a retired head who now campaigns against cover supervisors. He resigned from the NASUWT union's national executive in 2002, partly because he was concerned about where the workforce agreement would lead. "The situation is out of control," he said. "A system to provide time for teachers to mark and prepare has been exploited by school leaders. Many teachers do not realise how this is diluting our profession."

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said there were many examples of effective and appropriate use of support staff for cover supervision. But she added: "If support staff are being used as cover supervisors without the pay and training, are left for long periods and expected to do more than supervise, then this is a misuse of those staff."


- Cover supervision should only occur when no active teaching is taking place.

- It should only be used for short absences. Long-term sick or maternity leave should be covered by a teacher.

- When deciding whether to use cover supervision, heads should consider the extent to which continuity of learning can be maintained, the length of time a group of pupils would be working without a teacher, and the proportion of total curriculum time affected in a specific subject during a term.

- It would "clearly be inappropriate" for a class led predominantly by a single teacher for the majority of the day to be supervised for more than three consecutive days.

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