Severe staffing shortages in Scottish schools are forcing teachers out of retirement, leading to subjects being dropped from the timetable and leaving students who have additional support needs without vital assistance, research has claimed.
The dearth of supply teachers is causing particular concern to the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA), with reports from some schools suggesting that the situation is the worst that staff have ever experienced.
"The supply shortage is being covered in schools by teachers' goodwill," SSTA general secretary Seamus Searson said. "All teachers want the best for their pupils and help out in an emergency, but unfortunately it is happening all the time."
The SSTA evidence, shared exclusively with TESS, shows that one school relied on student teachers to provide cover for up to seven years after a series of retirements and resignations. Other teachers told of staff being pressurised to return early from long-term absence.
In one case, according to Mr Searson, an 82-year-old former teacher reluctantly agreed to come back to the classroom to take the younger pupils for a few days, but has so far ended up staying for several months.
Meanwhile, some subjects are being squeezed out of timetables, with concerns expressed repeatedly about business studies, computing, home economics and languages.
In one school, accounting was dropped from the curriculum and a rota was applied to home economics and craft, design and technology, meaning that only one at a time could be offered at Higher level. "Faculty [has been] understaffed for more than four years but this is the worst I have ever seen," one teacher noted.
`All the pupils lose out'
Provision for additional support needs is suffering, too. A lack of specialist teachers means that pupils with severe difficulties are struggling to cope in class. They get frustrated, cause disruption "and all the pupils lose out", the SSTA heard.
There is evidence, too, of pupil support staff being removed from posts and used to cover subject specialists on long-term absence, despite having little experience in delivering national qualifications. "Monitoring of their work is minimal and pressure is put on the staff to return from absence earlier than recommended and to pick up the pieces on their return," one comment reads.
The SSTA wants to see a breakdown of staffing shortages in each secondary school. "Local authorities giving authority-wide figures is important but it does not recognise the real impact on individual schools, the teachers and the pupils," Mr Searson said.
John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, said that councils were not reporting any improvement in the situation. This was despite measures such as turning to retirees and newly qualified teachers, running recruitment campaigns, combining classes and establishing "permanent supply pools" that gave teachers more job security, he noted.
But he added that "peak demand" had passed and predicted that the situation would improve after the summer.
`I will probably leave teaching'
In recent years supply teachers have been forced to work for five days at a lower rate before they receive full pay. This has since been reduced to two days at a lower rate.
The pressure group Scottish Supply Teachers has now collated the concerns of its constituents online. "I will probably leave teaching when my contract ends," one teacher said. "I do not expect to ever get a permanent job.Going on general supply just would not be worth it any longer."
A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said it was "keen to resolve the issue of supply teacher pay and conditions, but these were currently still under consideration at the SNCT [Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers]".
That tripartite body - comprising members from teaching organisations, local authorities and the Scottish government - has now published a paper by its Supply Teachers Review Group (bit.lySupplyTeachers).
The paper calls for "a "more streamlined approach" to the administration of supply teachers, which varies across the country. It also advocates "dual qualifications" so that teachers are qualified to provide cover in more than one subject, and a concerted effort to encourage teachers back into the profession if they have left to take up a different type of job.
In addition, councils are advised to consider specialist CPD for supply teachers to get them up to speed with new qualifications and curriculum changes.
TESS reported last year that supply hours had dropped by up to a third in parts of Scotland ("Cuts in cover expose `significant problem' ", 1 August). A survey of 20 local authorities found an average fall of 15 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13.
What the SSTA heard
One school "muddled through" with home economics after a specialist left, but this became "untenable" and the subject has now "virtually disappeared".
A teacher who had suffered some four years of staff shortages said: "I have been given two probationers in the past, which probably only exacerbated the situation and put more stress on the department to train them."
A languages teacher who retired in 2010 has never been replaced, with supply teachers and probationers filling in ever since.
Headteachers and deputes are covering classes on a regular basis as a way of "papering over the cracks".
Primary-qualified pupil support staff are taking subject classes at a senior level.
Core PE and religious and moral education is being removed from S4 timetables despite "strong protests" from the departments.
Some senior classes are not being covered.