ABSENCE cover problems in some local authorities are in danger of becoming "institutionalised" with one union leader claiming that only the goodwill of staff is preventing a major crisis.
A TES Scotland survey shows a wide disparity among authorities, ranging from "dire" shortages to "not a big problem". The survey also showed that cover problems are less likely where permanent supply pools have been created.
A North Lanarkshire spokesperson described this as "a trough year" for absence cover, especially in primary schools, adding: "Thank God for retired teachers."
Inverclyde reported constant difficulties. Between August last year and January this year, the authority was unable to respond to 11 out of 46 requests from primary schools. Almost half of the requests from secondaries were unsuccessful - nine out of 19.
Tom Tracey, local association secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said the Inverclyde position was "terrible". Mr Tracey said: "We don't have a problem with supply budgets, we simply cannot get supply teachers."
Alex McKay, Fife's head of education, told The TES Scotland that there were difficulties across a range of subjects. "We are continuing to make efforts to attract new supply teachers to register for work in Fife to meet this demand and identify other ways in which the situation could be improved."
Edinburgh reports that it always has difficulty - especially at this time of year - and has to compete with neighbouring authorities for available cover.
Falkirk said it was able to provide cover "most of the time". A spokesperson said: "Occasionally we have to withdraw seconded staff and deploy other staff who would not normally be teaching, for example primary headteachers."
It is this kind of practice that is "keeping the system ticking over", Willie Hart, secretary of the EIS in Glasgow, said.
"I have the impression that there is now an institutionalised cover problem every session between November and March," Mr Hart said. "The system is being maintained only by the extensive goodwill of staff, especially primary staff. Primary headteachers are substituting for non-appearing staff on a very frequent basis to the detriment of their managerial and curricular responsibilities."
At least one school in Glasgow, Cleveden Secondary, took matters into its own hands and used its devolved budget to employ two permanent "in-house" supply teachers - a move supported by the staff. But problems still arose. Richard Foote, the school's EIS representative, said the good efforts of the school management had been "stymied" by the increase in demand for cover and the inability of the authority to provide it.
Mr Foote said: "Only the flexible deployment of staff has enabled us to continue specialist teaching and avoid the same classes missing out. The system works because fifth and sixth-year classes are covered in extremis."
Mr Hart sees permanent supply pools as part of the solution. "Another mechanism," he said, "would be to implement the winding-down scheme for older staff and free up people available for cover. The extent of the problem was exemplified in Glasgow this month when a school was told that there was simply no cover available either in primary or in secondary. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely."
A spokesperson for Glasgow said pressures ease once the "winter bugs" pass from March onwards. "We are currently having problems in identifying appropriate levels of absence cover in both the primary and secondary sectors, although the situation changes from day to day."
The Executive has set up pilot schemes in a number of authorities in an effort to uncover the extent of problems, after admitting it was unsure of the true position.
POOLS EASE THE PROBLEM
Permanent pools of supply staff seem to weather the storm better. South Lanarkshire Was among the first to create permanent posts to cover primary and secondary schools, which meant over 177 teachers are available.
Unions and the council say that the pool provides a proper career structure and improves the chances of pupils being taught by teachers qualified in the subject.
* Renfrewshire officials say that the situation has improved in the primary sector in the two years since a permanent primary supply pool was set up.
* Absence cover "isn't a particularly big problem" in East Dunbartonshire which has a six-strong permanent pool of primary teachers. The authority is now considering setting up a pool for secondary schools.
* Sonia Kordiak, Educational Institute of Scotland secretary in Midlothian, said that a small pool of permanent supply staff helps, but schools still face difficulties especially over long-term absences.
* West Dunbartonshire has expanded its permanent primary pool from 12 to 15 staff and notes comparatively less difficulty in finding cover than in other authorities, although this does not apply in all cases.