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You can't run from cover

Love it or loathe it, taking lessons for absent colleagues is a fact of staffroom life. Sara Bubb offers some practical tips

Do you ever have anxiety dreams? In one of mine I was asked by a head to coach the First XV. All my arguments were met with the glib assurance that he had every faith in my talents. Ghastly. But many teachers have to take lessons in subjects they know nothing about and which give them the heebie-jeebies.

As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness gives way to the season of post-Christmas, pre-spring blues, illness hits the staffroom and you'll get asked to cover more and more. Now I'm sure there are some people who enjoy turning their hand to a different subject. But most teachers vehemently dislike it.

Schools vary in the amount they ask NQTs to do. In some they're used only as a last resort. In others, their goodwill and enthusiasm are shamelessly exploited.

"Doing cover day-in day-out demoralises staff and is the single thing that would make me leave the profession", commented Shakin in the forum for new teachers on the TES website.

Ginoni covered a Year 7 class doing ICT: "They didn't know their passwords and I hadn't a clue where to find someone to help."

Even trainee teachers aren't exempt. Someone on the graduate teacher programme covered at least one lesson a week in the autumn term. "I've been to classrooms where no work has been set and I frequently go to cover and the classroom door is locked. I then have to traipse around the school trying to find the head of department for a key."

Practical subjects are notoriously hard to cover, particularly when no work has been left.

Freddie had to cover drama in a temporary room. "We had to leave 20 minutes before the end of the lesson so that tables could be put out for lunch. The kids told me that the regular teacher allowed them to go, but that sounded suspicious. There was nobody around to ask so I ended up marching this disgruntled Year 9 class back to my own faculty area, because I felt responsible for them," he said.

Safety is an important issue. If there's an accident during a lesson, the legal position is that the employer (the local education authority or the governing body) has ultimate responsibility.

According to Health and Safety: Responsibilities and Powers, teachers'

responsibilities include:

* taking reasonable steps to ensure their own safety

* carrying out work in accordance with training and instructions

* informing the employer of any serious risk.

For instance, the science NQT who was asked to cover a PE netball class decided that this was a safety risk, and so did a theory lesson instead.

So what are the solutions? Some schools employ more staff than necessary so that some are on a "light" timetable but expected to cover classes as part of their teaching load. It's a good idea, but crazy to give an NQT such a role. Isn't it hard enough teaching lessons that you've planned, on subjects that you know, to pupils you know?

Another solution suggested in the Department for Education and Skills's Time for Standards proposals on workloads is for assistants to take classes when teachers are absent. Often they are seen as a better option than unknown supply teachers. Is it legal, though?

Yes, assistants, unqualified teachers and trainees should be under the supervision of a qualified teacher, but this is not to say that the qualified teacher need always be present. It's for the head to say what supervision is necessary.

Unfortunately, you can't refuse to cover. The letter of the law is in Teachers' Pay and Conditions (paragraph 66.9). You're expected to do what the head asks of you and that includes covering for colleagues - for the first three days of their absence. NQTs aren't exempt from this requirement, although lots of schools try not to use them, at least for the first term or two.

That doesn't mean that you can't be asked to cover in your free periods, but remember, if you're called upon to do cover, the time can be "banked" and repaid at a later date.

If you earmark free periods for induction and spend them on professional development they're less likely to get taken away. Or just be bold, like Schatzi, who wrote on the cover slip "I thought I was on a 90 per cent protected timetable. However, if there is an emergency please let me know."

She hasn't been asked again.

Sara Bubb's latest book, 'A Newly Qualified Teacher's Manual: how to meet the induction standards' is published by David Fulton

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