Supply teaching crisis ‘worse than ever before’

8th April 2016 at 01:00
Local authorities struggle to cover classes and some consider sending pupils home

Scotland’s supply-teaching crisis is laid bare in a new document showing that the vast majority of councils are facing a desperate struggle to cover classes.

Teaching organisations have warned that some are on the brink of sending pupils home. The situation has fuelled calls for a national supply-booking system, with the report showing that the vast majority of councils do not work with other authorities to meet demand.

Almost every council is now attempting to coax more retired teachers back into the classroom – last year, TESS revealed that an 82-year-old teacher had returned to work in one authority – while some want to enable supply staff to work in both primary and secondary schools.

The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers (SNCT) warns in a report that “the majority of Scottish councils are reporting a declining situation in providing sufficient supply cover” ( The committee is made up of local authorities, teaching unions and the government.

Unprecedented pressure

The situation is worse at primary, where 28 out of 32 authorities say that they are finding it “very difficult” or “difficult” to find enough supply cover; 24 councils say that the situation is deteriorating.

The picture is little better in secondaries, where 26 councils (of 30 respondents) are having significant difficulties finding cover and most say the situation is getting worse.

Drew Morrice, assistant secretary of the EIS teaching union, warned that the supply situation was a “growing problem” and that it was under the most pressure he had ever seen. “I know of some local authorities that have thought about sending kids home,” he added.

The SNCT report suggests that only about 60 per cent of the teachers on supply lists have worked in the past year. Mr Morrice suggested that the reason was that many now find it “quite daunting” to go back after a break from the profession, because of developments such as Professional Update, new qualifications and Curriculum for Excellence.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body AHDS, said members were reporting “supply-teacher staffing problems that are worse than ever before” and many headteachers were “in class pretty much full time at the moment”. He added: “I am not aware of any situation where pupils have been sent home yet, but it is clear that a small increase in staff absence could leave some schools with no other option.”

The report finds “little evidence of authorities working collaboratively to pool resources” – all but two do not work across council boundaries to meet demand for supply – and the majority “would welcome a national supply-booking system”, with a trial project pencilled in for the next school year. But councils warn that this would not solve the fundamental dearth of supply teachers, and more than half have no plans to work with other authorities.

Almost every council has recently taken steps to remove “unnecessary barriers” to retired teachers joining supply lists, the report shows.

But Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said that retirees had been put off by new qualifications and other recent developments, while many supply teachers “threw in the towel” after the controversial 2011 national pay deal, which was widely criticised for setting a far lower rate for the first five days of supply cover (later reduced to two).

There have “frequently been situations where senior classes have been left without cover, and junior classes [have been] amalgamated for mass supervision”, Mr Duncan said.

But there is no immediate risk of pupils being sent home, according to John Stodter, general secretary of education directors’ body ADES. This had not happened during the winter – when supply cover comes under the most pressure – so the threat had been staved off for now, at least until the next school year, he said.

Mr Stodter noted, however, that a fundamental problem remained with supply cover across the country: “There’s no planning model, no efficient or good way…of calculating the number of vacancies.”

The report also shows particular pressure on certain subjects – including Stem, home economics, technical subjects, computing and geography, as well as on Gaelic education and denominational schools.

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, said that work had begun with ADES and the University of Glasgow to increase reserves of teachers qualified to work in Catholic primary schools.


Primary headteacher’s view

“The search for supply impacts on me, as the calls mostly come outside my admin’s working day, so I have to look for a class teacher myself.

“If that fails, I have limited options. I can ask my additional support needs teacher to cover – but this immediately removes that essential support for pupils. I can ask my depute, or may have to cover the class myself; both options reduce time for managing the school.

“If all else fails, I can ask the local authority to source someone, perhaps an education support or quality improvement officer. However, over recent years the central team has been cut by more than 60 per cent, so availability is limited.

“Since Professional Update came in, I’ve noticed supply availability reduce substantially, as many retiring teachers aren’t prepared to continue with professional learning.”

Secondary teacher’s view

“The inability of my school to source supply teachers has added significantly to my workload. Even when the school asks the local authority to find cover for planned absence, it is frequently unable to locate supply teachers.

“My colleagues and I regularly try to help by going above maximum class-contact time, but this is unsustainable. It is leading to stress and increased staff absence, and pupils aren’t receiving the teaching they’re entitled to. In some cases, classes don’t receive specialist teaching for two or three months at a time.

“When I started my family, I reduced my teaching hours, and once the children were older I made myself available for supply work. But in 2011, the rates of pay were dramatically reduced and, with childcare and travel costs, it really wasn’t worthwhile anymore.”

An estimated


of teachers (estimated) on supply lists have worked in the past year.


of councils do not work with other local authorities to meet demand.


of councils have no plans to work with other councils.


councils (out of 21 surveyed) are working on “dual qualifications” so that, for example, secondary teachers can retrain for the primary sector.


councils do not pay travel or other allowances to supply teachers.

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