Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Are you covered?

conyers school

Case study 1
Teachers appreciate certainty
Case study 7
Faculty assistants
Case study 2
Peaks and troughs
Case study 8
Part-time, flexible contracts
Case study 3
Keeping staff healthy
Case study 9
Union consultation
Case study 4
Changing expectations
Case study 10
Never means never
Case study 5
Cover=n-2
Case study 11
Catching the Learning Bug
Case study 6
Bigger supply budget

From September 2009, schools will have to restrict the number of occasions teachers are asked to stand in for colleagues to all but the rarest cases. But what does 'rare' mean in practice? John Morgan attempts some clarification and highlights possible strategies.

Cutting the number of hours teachers spend covering for their colleagues has been a statutory aim for schools for the last five years.

Since the National Agreement on Raising Standards and Tackling Workload came into force in September 2003, there has been a 38-hour limit on the amount of cover each individual teacher can be required to do in the academic year and all cover for absence undertaken by teachers counts towards the limit. Moreover, teachers' planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time is part of the legal conditions of employment and cannot be used for cover.

Although not statutory at the time, it was also made clear that "downward pressure on cover should continue to deliver the objective in the national agreement that teachers should only rarely cover for absent colleagues."

ASCL has always recognised that this 'rarely cover' element of the national agreement would be the most difficult to implement in secondary schools. In particular, it is complicated by the fact that teachers released from timetabled teaching because their students are on examination leave (gained time) cannot be called upon to provide cover. The same applies to teachers whose usual class is absent on an educational visit.

To many school leaders and teachers, including these two areas within the definition of cover was not easy to accept and certainly made keeping to the 38-hour limit a challenge while maintaining the many, and greatly valued, activities traditionally planned for the summer term in particular. But, given ASCL's acceptance of the overall principle of reducing cover and providing teachers with more time to concentrate on developing their teaching, many schools just got on with it. However, last year, in the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document 2007, came the following warning:

"Schools should expect to implement the objective that teachers should only rarely cover from 1 September 2009. In the meantime, schools should set their own interim targets, informed by OME data which serves as a benchmark, to ensure they are ready to meet the objective of teachers rarely covering from 1 September 2009."

ASCL argued strongly that this date was too soon, given the position of many schools at the time, but we had to concede in the end.

Suddenly everyone was waiting to hear just how 'rarely cover' would be defined by WAMG (the Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group), which is made up of representatives of ASCL, other education unions, the DCSF and local authority employers' organisation.

Would it be "Teachers should only be required to cover rarely" or, maybe, "Teachers may not be required to cover except only rarely"? Is there any difference, argue the legal experts? ASCL believes that there is. However, as of this moment, the definition has yet to be agreed.

Involve the staff

Whatever the wording, the question all school leaders will be asking is: which of the many and varied reasons that might trigger a phone call requiring cover will count as 'rarely'? A flu bug causing an unexpectedly large number of sick teachers on Monday morning? Probably not, provided they all ring up in good time.

But what happens when there is a sudden emergency during the day or the school receives a late phone call in the morning about an absence - and there is no one left to cover? These are surely two of the rare occasions when a teacher can be used.

ASCL has resisted having a list where every such occasion is to be defined for us. Nor would we want 'rarely' defined by a number - because when that is exceeded how do we cope with the next emergency? So how do ASCL members manage rarely cover?

A small group that includes union representatives can help to outline the challenge, suggest solutions and clarify interpretations of rarely cover situations before they arise next year. The group can be encouraged to see that remodelling the workforce to enable cover supervisors to be employed will inevitably mean increasing the amount of teaching in the long run. (For example, a one-hour per week allocation for cover would no longer be needed. Therefore the saving in teaching costs can pay for cover supervisors.)

It helps to be open about the current rate of cover and, if you haven't already done so, look for ways to reduce it during this year rather than waiting for September.

Some schools are there already, having remodelled their workforce from the outset of the national agreement to enable rarely cover. Others will be well on the way, incrementally reducing the covers per year, maybe by employing an extra cover supervisor each year. The lucky ones will have traditionally low absence rates and a few nearby and reliable supply teachers when needed.

Three strategies

For most schools, however, planning to dispense with cover by teachers under normal circumstances from next September is a daunting challenge. There are a limited number of suitable strategies.

The first strategy is cover supervisors - either in the classroom or supervising classes working in learning centres with banks of computers (not an option for most).

Linking cover supervisors to a teaching team, so that they can provide support in class when not needed for cover, can be an effective use of resources.

Similarly, helping out in pastoral offices gives them the chance to establish relationships with some of the students who are likely to present the most challenges in terms of behaviour management in class.

The most effective training for the role will usually be carried out in school, for example, observing the behaviour management strategies of teachers. Many of the best will see the role as a step towards becoming a teacher, and will welcome becoming involved fully in the life of the school - sports graduates may also take extra-curricular clubs, for example, or they may aspire to a pastoral role and want to do some mentoring, too.

Another strategy is to cut non sickness-related cover by re-thinking current practice. Consider having timetabled, whole-school focus days or activity weeks and then ensure that all trips take place within them. As they are part of the agreed timetable for the year, cover is avoided. If a trip has to run during the normal timetable, using support staff reduces the number of teachers on the trip. Supply costs should be factored into the cost of the trip, too.

It is worth looking at other activities during the year which require cover - are they still necessary or can they be organised another way? The local authority should be doing the same. Through heads' meetings and the local workforce agreement monitoring group (WAMG), make it clear at the most senior level that calling meetings during the school day will simply result in schools not attending - and that this message needs to go right across children's services.

It's also helpful to identify emergency back-ups among support staff - they will be staff paid at the same rate or higher than cover supervisors (some teaching assistants, year managers, mentors) who may be needed for sudden, busy lessons. Hopefully 'occasionally supervising whole classes' is already on their job description. If a teaching assistant is attached to the whole class rather than a particular student, s/he could supervise the class. It also will be good for year managers to cover classes in their own year groups occasionally.

Finally, whichever member of support staff manages the cover, s/he will need to work closely with a member of the senior team to make the strategy work for everyone.

John Morgan is head of Conyers School, Stockton-on-Tees and vice president of ASCL.


Case study 1 - Conyers

Teachers appreciate certainty

Conyers School has about 1,400 11-18 students and 84 full-time equivalent teachers. We run 50 one-hour lessons over a two-week cycle.

From 2004-05, when our average cover time stood at 38 hours, we have gradually reduced it to ten hours by employing two and then three cover supervisors. This year we are trialling 'rarely cover' and have reached October half-term without any teacher being required to cover.

By increasing the basic teaching load from 43 to 44 hours, we saved the cost of two teachers. We used the money to employ a fourth cover supervisor and increase the supply budget.

We use specialist supply after five days. Higher level teaching assistants and our five non-teaching year managers are on emergency standby (needed for 12 lessons so far this year). A change to the one-to-one tutor review day process, moving from a day off timetable to using afternoon tutorial time supported by a link tutor, has saved at least 40 days' cover.

In addition, PSHE delivery has been changed from one hour per cycle to six whole-school focus days which include most year trips, saving at least 80 days of cover.

Our personnel officer manages the cover and the cover supervisors, allocating them to in-class support when not needed. The timetable flags up when a class has a teaching assistant attached who could cover as a last resort.

The best training for our cover supervisors has seen them learning behaviour management techniques - not from teachers who use force of personality but from the calm teachers who employ more subtle skills just as effectively.

Our staff Investors in People group, which includes union representatives, was involved in agreeing the strategies to adopt and is monitoring the effectiveness and the impact on teachers' work-life balance.

Most of all, the teaching staff really appreciate the certainty 'rarely cover' brings to their day.

by John Morgan

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Case study 2 - Burscough Priory

Peaks and troughs

Burscough Priory Science College has about 700 pupils aged 11-16 and 45 teaching staff. When the 38 hours per year cover limit was introduced in 2005 our annual average was just above 20. In 2007-08 it fell to just under ten. Some staff did more and others less, according to when non-teaching time appeared on people's timetables and how many were not teaching at that particular time. Some departments, particularly PE, preferred to cover for absent colleagues themselves, rather than drafting someone in.

We began our reduction in cover by employing a full-time teacher doing supply for short-term absences. In 2007-08 we appointed two cover supervisors and reduced the supply teacher to 0.6 of a full-time schedule. We have been fortunate with the cover supervisors as one is a retired subject leader and the other is returning to education after having a family. They are regarded as integral members of staff, have been supported by everyone (it is in people's interests to do so) and have entered into the life of the school.

The only change we have made for 2008-09 is to increase the amount of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time on teachers' timetables. When the cover staff have been unable to manage, because demand has outweighed supply, we have brought cover in from an agency or used our own teachers, but very sparingly.

For 2009-10 we will appoint another full-time cover supervisor in place of the 0.6 teacher. There will be times when three people will be too many. At those times, they will undertake other tasks - such as working with disruptive pupils or differentiating work for teachers - or development opportunities. These may also be 'rest' periods as the job is a difficult one, particularly until someone is established.

At other times we will need more than three people covering so we will have to buy in cover. It will also mean limiting the number of people out on courses to one per day and cutting back on student trips off the premises. Personal appointments during the school day, which we currently accommodate if possible, will also have to be restricted.

The amount we are spending (and will spend) is more but it is balanced by teachers doing much less cover which is a benefit for the pupils.

We can move to 'rarely' cover in September 2009 but there is a need for a workable definition and what constitutes an emergency. We know there will be peaks and troughs which we will have to manage.

We may work with two neighbouring schools and employ people jointly. As long as we can manage the situation we should be okay, but I worry about how big the pool of cover supervisors is. If ours leave we are back to square one - finding and retraining a person for what can be an unenviable job.

By Roger Leighton, head of Burscough Priory Science College in Lancashire.
head@prioryhigh.lancs.sch.uk

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Case study 3 - Banbury

Keeping staff healthy

Banbury School, with about 1,500 11-18 year-olds, has embraced workforce reform from the first, but rarely cover is a real challenge! We have pastoral managers, cover supervisors and performance management for support staff; we implemented no invigilation and PPA for teachers a year early; but rarely cover is altogether different.

To minimise cover, we already schedule the calendar for educational visits well in advance and take into account the pattern of events, exams, work experience and so on, across the year.

We reorganise the timetable from the start of exams in the summer to redistribute teaching more equitably and to ensure all teachers get some 'gained time' for developmental work, and we have 'creative learning days' where the timetable is suspended allowing a different pattern of learning and teaching. But even with all of this getting to rarely cover is going to be difficult.

To help with teacher attendance we have 'light weeks' (no after school meetings or extra activities for teachers) where we used to have the highest rates of illness. This has helped with the November and February peaks of absence. We also offer free flu jabs just before October half term, and this is taken up by about 30 per cent of all staff.

Without a doubt, teacher absence through illness has reduced and we have seen this for about three consecutive years, with the average cover per teacher falling to about ten hours. The real challenge is achieving our target of an average of seven hours for 2008-09, let alone to rarely cover from next September.

The pressure is not so much from short-term illness, as the cover supervisors can cope well with this, but from those instances where there is LA-run training that a head of department has to attend (and you've had the money in the budget to release her), planned exam board training and brilliant last minute chances for a trip to the local university providing enrichment for the most able - and then two staff are out on interview.

Already the cover supervisors are busy all day, the supply agencies can't help and we find that we are left no choice but to put teaching staff in.

We 'overstaff' by the equivalent of two teachers each year which helps with long-term absence as we can re-timetable. When not needed for this they can provide targeted extra staffing to key classes, but this has cost implications and doesn't help with the unplanned short-term absence.

Our current thinking is that for all educational visits we will include a nominal charge for supply teacher costs for each period of cover required, allowing agency supply teachers to be bought in for this important part of students' experience.

We will be less likely to be able to support the 'last minute' activities but we will have a year-long planned series of activities, trips and visits in advance so that all students do have equal access.

All teaching staff will need to take into account the impact of their absence on every other staff member and understand the support we need to offer each other. For some colleagues this will be a real shift in thinking.

So far we have used strategies designed to keep staff 'healthy', have a team of cover supervisors and are using the year calendar to plan well in advance. Teachers teach and lead and manage student progress and achievement. Support staff carry out all the other aspects of running a school.

But I suspect that, despite very careful planning, and genuine support for and desire to get to 'rarely cover', at least for the first few years the challenge will remain as we gain an understanding of the key factors impacting on cover needs.

By Fiona Hammans, principal of Banbury School in Oxfordshire.
fbhammans@banbury.oxon.sch.uk

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Case study 4 - Cowes High School

Changing expectations

Cowes High School is a 13-18 community school with 1,000 students. Three years ago we decided to look seriously at our cover arrangements as what was in place clearly wasn't satisfactory.

Students told us that the work they did was boring, the cover teacher clearly did not want to be there, behaviour was generally poorer and those who did work found the topic covered again when the teacher returned. Cover staff also told us they often couldn't teach and could struggle to lead unfamiliar activities in a strange environment.

We were left asking what was the best use, therefore, of the time when a teacher was away - and unsurprisingly the answer was learning. This led to the creation of a Learning Resources Centre with 180 ICT workstations. We were lucky that a capital building project at the right time gave us this opportunity. Although it sounds expensive, with a creative approach we were able to keep the cost to a minimum.

With the LRC we did away with set work. If a colleague is away, work is not related to the current scheme of work but is on a general research topic, using revision / independent learning schemes such as Bitesize or SAM learning. It may not even be from the timetabled subject. The teacher on his/her return has to review medium-term plans to ensure that planned work is covered - which leaves the teacher with greater accountability.

All cover experiences (no longer 'lessons'!) are in the LRC, rather than in the 'home' room. With this larger area, there can be supervision of multiple groups and expectations of behaviour and work can be developed as a uniform standard.

For this type of cover we needed to appoint staff interested in students and able to work as a team, with ICT skills and the ability to do research. We appointed five colleagues on term-time only, full-time contracts. Their duties are to support an area of learning (faculty) where they work with staff to understand the curriculum, develop independent learning and research tasks, gain expertise in learning packages and provide general administrative support.

This 'belonging' to an area of learning, and the mixed duties, increase the job's appeal and we have managed over two years to retain people in posts. The role tends to attract those in career transition, often with an interest in a child-focused career.

After two years, has it been successful? Yes. Students get a better experience; teacher absence is lower; there is more purpose to cover activity; our additional staff feel an integral part of the learning team. We still employ supply staff to carry out full teaching duties during longer-term absence and teacher cover is now rare.

The down side? Occasionally, some students end up with significant time in the centre. At critical times our team of area support assistants - now six of them - can be on cover activity all day. This is tiring and gives them less time to prepare and plan. Overall, however, it is a much better experience for both students and staff.

By David Snashall, head of Cowes High School on the Isle of Wight.
dsnashall@coweshigh.org.uk

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Case study 5 - St Wilfred's RC College

Cover=n-2

St Wilfrids RC College is a mixed comprehensive with 930 pupils. We began this academic year determined to pilot "rarely cover", to see what the costs and/or pitfalls were, and to have arrangements in place in good time for September 2009.

Having a new deputy head, David Amos, managing the whole of the school calendar and cover, assisted by cover administrator Delaine Nye, was an advantage - with new people managing the process, we could have a fresh look at issues surrounding cover.

John Morgan's excellent PowerPoint on 'Managing Rarely Cover' (on the ASCL website) was used at the start, adapted of course to our school circumstances. Almost a term later, we are 'nearly there' with rarely cover. And we're staying on budget - just!

Meetings with the teacher unions have produced a positive attitude from the teaching staff who appreciate our efforts to reduce teacher workload and the reasons why we sometimes have to say no to someone going out of school where we would once have said yes.

Unusually for an English specialist and a linguist, over the past eight weeks we've come up with a neat mathematical formula for managing cover: C= n-2

C is cover and n is the total capacity for cover supervision. The -2 reflects the 2 people who will, by Murphy's Law, ring in sick unexpectedly if you plan in advance to use your full cover supervision capacity on any given day.

The key consideration appears to be the ability to predict the unpredictable - hence our formula! Initially, we considered C = n-1, but felt this left the school open using teachers to cover too often. Early teething problems led to the occasional top heavy day.

The way in which we fund cover is developing as we progress into 'rarely cover'. There is currently a small (larger next year?) budget for cover, but this is limited as we had, in all honesty, not planned to set this aside for this financial year. The deal we struck with our insurance providers last year is reasonable. Teaching staff are covered after the fifth consecutive day's illness. The daily amount from the insurers is £150, which is more than adequate for cover supervisors, but not for supply teachers. Two examples of our current situation clearly outline this predicament:

  1. One colleague is absent, and we are employing a subject specialist who is not a teacher. Therefore, we are paying this person on an unqualified teacher daily rate of £104 (it could indeed have been less than this, but for the person's skills and experiences, and the fact that he is alleviating a difficulty for us).

  2. Another is also absent, but her subject is a shortage and requires a specialist. He is retired, but at the top of his salary scale. Thus, we are paying much more.

In both cases, the school feels it is achieving good value for money.

We currently have two different teaching assistants on stand-by every lesson, with three others we can pull in if necessary. This facilitates us covering unplanned and planned staff absences. The difficulty is when you have allowed a colleague's request to go out on CPD (the new GCSEs have been a nightmare this term!) or to a personal appointment, and then the phone rings at 8am with news of two colleagues who are unwell. Hence, C = n-2!

One key element to this process is to develop a bank of supply colleagues who are not via an agency, although this takes time. The school's business manager also is looking into the viability of having a member of staff employed mainly as a cover supervisor, from 1 April 2009. However, the candidate would need to be carefully chosen; the role could be a thankless task unless the person has the appropriate rapport with the pupils. On the occasions s/he was not needed for cover, the business manager would assign specified administrative tasks. This is intended to ease the cover burden on teaching assistants, and to give continuity to our own processes, whilst at the same time affording us savings in the long run.

We are a Christian school, and are striving to support staff whilst at the same time acknowledging the demands of running a school. We certainly do not wish to lose the staff's goodwill, but we do on occasion have to ask whether a certain medical appointment is urgent - in which case, no questions asked - or merely routine. In the cases of the latter, the tightrope of 'fairness' is carefully trodden!

The Making Good Progress pilot, including Assessing Pupil Progress, and the functional skills training have been a frustrating aspect of CPD this term as the funding offered fails to match the expenditure on cover were we to 'buy in' for every colleague attending every meeting.

In summary, the cleft stick is the desire to balance our school's commitment to the staff with the need to run the school effectively and with financial efficiency. It often seems to be the case that tomorrow looks like a good day for cover - until the phone starts ringing at 7.55am when tomorrow comes!

By David Amos, deputy head, and Christine Wright, head, of St Wilfred's RC College, South Shields
cwright@st-wilfrids.org

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Case study 6 - Ramsey Grammar School

Bigger supply budget

Ramsay Grammar School is an 11-19 rural comprehensive of around 1,050 students on the Isle of Man, with a population of around 80,000. The nature of island life means that numbers of supply teachers are small, the range of specialisms limited and there are no supply agencies. The issue is further complicated by a government imposed personnel cap which controls the number of staff the school is permitted to employ. This figure was not increased following the Workload Agreement and so the school has been unable to recruit a team of cover supervisors or employ additional administrative support staff.

Despite these additional impediments, we successfully removed all of the original 25 tasks from our expectations of teachers. Following the agreement we set out to address the issue of PPA and reducing cover. We adopted a policy that we would take action to reduce the cover demand on teaching colleagues, aiming for zero cover except in exceptional circumstances. The main strategies used to date have been:

  1. Full 10 per cent allocation and protection of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time by adding it to staff timetables such that they cannot be taken for lesson covers.

  2. Work with staff to give early indications of pregnancy to give time to enable appointments to be made to over-staff to cover maternity leave.

  3. Use of gained time to produce banks of cover material for each subject team to inform supply staff.

  4. Proactive moves to recruit new supply staff and encourage them to choose RGS as their preferred school (eight new ones joined our list in 2007-8).

  5. Provision of good quality information and support for supply staff

  6. Budget priority to create a much larger supply budget:
    2004-05 £43,000
    2005-06 £72,000
    2006-07 £113,000
    2007-08 £122000
    2008-09 £138,000

    NB these sums only show the costs of cover for the first nine days of any absence. Absences of ten days and beyond are met by a bond.

Our cover statistic reports show:

2005-06 - 25 hours average per member of staff per year

2006-07 - 19 hours average per member of staff per year

2007-08 - 8 hours average per member of staff per year

The greatest challenge now is to find a way forward to make an equitable demand on staff when they are needed for cover, in the light of separate buildings, as this is a split-site school, timetable constraints and supply staff preferences and availability.

It will get harder to reduce demand still further without applying restraints to training days, fieldwork, off-site visits and other leave of absence. We have resisted any pressure to do this so far, believing that staff are more supportive and effective if we try to support their needs.

By David Trace, head, Ramsey Grammar School, Isle of Man

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Case study 7 - Halifax High

Faculty assistants

Halifax High at Wellesley Park is an 11-16 school with about 850 pupils. Our attempt to move towards rarely cover, while containing obvious flaws, is at least a step in the right direction.

The first important element of our solution is that each faculty has been assigned a 'faculty assistant'. His/her duties include administrative support for the faculty, classroom support as required and cover for unplanned absence of faculty colleagues. A number of them have begun to obtain accreditation as HLTAs.

Cover for absent colleagues falls into two categories, planned and unplanned. For planned absences we normally use supply staff from a local agency. Should a colleague be unexpectedly absent, in the first instance the faculty assistant would cover the lessons.

There is no expectation that they would formally teach the class, although they would usually be in a position to help students with difficulties. The same would apply to a second day of absence. After that our insurance policy would enable us to book a supply teacher.

In the event that the faculty assistant isn't able to cover the class, at the moment a member of the leadership team steps in (not an ideal solution, but at least a relatively rare occurrence). If there was no one available for the leadership team, a member of the department would be asked to step in. This might mean putting classes together or sharing out students to those staff with space.

As a final, last straw - anyone upright and warm would be required to take the class. This is a very, very rare occurrence. The vast majority of cover is managed by the faculty assistant.

By Christian Markham, head, Halifax High at Wellesley Park, West Yorkshire

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Case study 8 - Pen y dre High School

Part-time, flexible contracts

Pen y dre High School in Merthyr Tydfil is a mixed 11-18 comprehensive with just under 1,000 students. We have devised the following arrangements:

  1. One lead cover supervisor guaranteed 150 days' work a year (to plan, supervise and monitor the work of colleagues in addition to providing cover themselves)

  2. Three other cover supervisors guaranteed 75 days (or equivalent half days) a year work at a somewhat lower rate of per day

We started this in September and it has worked very well. Teachers have done close to no cover, although occasionally we still need some agency staff.

The payment goes through payroll and therefore requires employers' NI contributions. We initially looked at whether it could be classed as a 'fee' and be paid directly off payroll but we didn't think that this would stand up to scrutiny as most of the work of a cover supervisor is heavily directed which would fall into the category of being employed. If anybody has a different view on this I would be interested to know.

As employees they therefore have the right to opt into the Local Government Pension Scheme - which some have, at extra cost to the school. That said, it is still far less costly than employing four full-time cover supervisors who would be surplus to requirements on some days.

We are fortunate in that a good number of people were interested in this offer. It is flexible for us and them. We give them plenty of notice, and if it is last minute they are entitled to turn us down. They can also turn down anything over the guaranteed days.

By Stephen Senior, assistant head, Pen y dre High School in Merthyr Tydfil stephenjsenior@hotmail.com

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Case study 9 - Ryton Comprehensive

Union consultation

Ryton Comprehensive in Gateshead is an 11-18 school with about 1,300 students. We introduced a small team of two cover supervisors in 2004 and we now have a team of three full-time equivalent with a part-time appointment under consideration. At the same time we moved to an admin officer organising daily cover with strategic management/issue resolution from a deputy headteacher.

Quite quickly this reduced teachers covering colleagues to around half the level pre-Workforce Reform Agreement. Consideration has been given to attempting to spread the school calendar of 'disruptive events' across the year rather than packing the summer term with trips and visits.

We will review this approach In July 2009. Each year we convene a representative sample of staff (chosen to reflect a spread of career stage and therefore teaching load) to review our PPA and cover policy.

Last summer we asked this group to help us define what 'rarely cover' would mean for us. I had previously consulted with union colleagues and was initially suggesting around 10-12 covers per year for teachers. The group actually suggested 16 covers per year or roughly once per fortnight as a more practical option, allowing staff a little more flexibility with each other. The group were worried that a lower number would necessarily restrict the extraordinarily broad range of opportunities we offer to students and staff.

By Steve Williamson, deputy head and headteacher designate, Ryton Comprehensive, Gateshead
swilliamson@rytoncs.co.uk


Case study 10 - Valley School, Worksop

Never means never

Valley School in North Nottinghamshire has about 1,500 11-18 students on roll. When tackling the whole workforce reform agenda several years ago we took a risk; ‘rarely cover’ was to be considered to be ‘never cover’. High risk it may have appeared but the net effect after three years has dispelled the scepticism of some traditionalist teaching colleagues. We currently employ two teams of colleagues responsible for a) covering absent colleagues and b) invigilating in examinations.

The cover team comprises a cover manager and seven cover supervisors. The manager picks up the answer machine calls in the morning and holds the school diary, monitoring activities that take teaching staff away from their classes. She occasionally refers to designated members of the core leadership team when the diary starts to look somewhat overcrowded. She also has a central role in the monitoring of staff attendance, triggering attendance reviews and contributes where necessary to subsequent strategies including formal disciplinary action.

The team of cover supervisors (and manager initially) received in-house training before being put in front of classes. They were originally planned to have some behaviour management training followed by a term of observation alongside teachers covering lessons. They were then due to pair up with each other before finally flying solo.

However, they decided after about six weeks of working alongside teachers and each other that enough was enough and they wanted to do the job they were being paid to do. They did just that; very successfully. From that time onwards they have been the core of our support for faculties when staff are absent.

Normally they will only cover for a colleague absent for three or four days and then a supply teacher is brought in. The money to pay for the team comes in effect from a re-distribution from our supply account. Monies from our CPD budget for supply also go into the team. We currently pay an insurance premium to get post-three day cover. Looking at the figures it is highly unlikely that we will do that next year and will have a pot available for post-three day teacher supply cover.

We have spoken with the teacher associations and, at their request, agreed that teachers will be permitted to cover for absent colleagues to allow large events to take place in school*. These are rare across the calendar and often are whole year group based activities. For example Y9 tutors really wanted to accompany their tutor groups to the University of Sheffield on an HE taster day. The whole year group go, not just those in the top ability range.

Previously, because of our insistence on never cover, we found alternative ways of staffing this event. However, the Y9 tutors asked if teachers freed because they would have taught the now absent Y9 students could cover their non-Y9 classes. This was a sensible and pragmatic response to a problem that stopped teachers doing something they felt to be extremely valuable. In this example we rearranged the timetable for the day and all were happy. If this is rarely cover then we have failed to deliver the never cover aim. Teachers at Valley don’t see it that way.

Our cover supervisors are allocated to faculties and when there is no cover required they do clerical and display work for colleagues. When on cover they have seating plans that they use with classes and have laptops so that they can register every lesson via SIMS Lesson Monitor. At the end of each lesson covered the faculty get a feedback sheet from the supervisor recording work completed and any issues they may have had with any of the students. They can also record praise for individuals and suggest next steps with that class when the teacher returns.

As well as cover supervisors, we also employed an invigilation team for all external exams and tests. These colleagues joined, and are led by, our examinations officer. This member of our support team is part of a four-strong data and examinations team. In simple terms, invigilators are recruited and employed on an as-needs basis and they are also paid to undertake training (including in behaviour management) and take part in review meetings. They have a calendar of dates and expect to be called in to work at those times.

We pay for two different types of invigilator. We have about six lead invigilators who each take charge of an examination base. They run the examination and when issues arise all activity is directed through them. They run an exam with the required number of invigilators who in effect take on the role formerly played by the teaching staff. This works really well with hardly any recourse to the leadership team for support.

As a result of all this activity, teachers have not covered lessons or invigilated exams for several years at Valley. This is a much appreciated benefit of reform that allows colleagues to plan their non-contact time without fear of it being taken away from them. It was high risk at the time to keep teachers out of the examination halls and to move to never cover. That risk was worth it as teachers at Valley know that never means just that!

Brian Rossiter, Headteacher, Valley School, Worksop, Nottinghamshire

* Note from ASCL: Valley School’s provisions for ‘rarely cover’ have been reproduced faithfully above, but ASCL’s advice to schools is to tread extremely carefully in any voluntary arrangement. It is not illegal for teachers to volunteer to cover for colleagues, but schools will not be able to require a teacher to cover in anything other than ‘emergency-type’ situations and voluntary arrangements should not be incorporated into school’s policies.**

** Brian Rossiter adds: In the case of Valley School, the arrangements are not part of a formal policy. The request for this approach to one event this academic year has come from the staff body via staff association reps and as such it was felt appropriate to operate the arrangement. Involvement is voluntary.

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Case study 11 - Clevedon Community School

Catching the Learning Bug

When Clevedon Community School (11-18 year old comprehensive) reviewed their provision of cover lessons three years ago, the decision was made to both upgrade the learning environment and to provide lesson content for cover lessons that was inspiring for students and teachers alike.

A remodelling of the existing library and office space over the summer holidays resulted in the Discovery Centre – an air-conditioned learning facility annexing the school library, with projectors and 90 computers. An audio and ‘control’ centre enable two cover supervisors to facilitate learning for three to four classes at a time for each of the six periods of the school day.

From the outset, great care was taken to establish a positive working ethos for the Discovery Centre so that students looked upon cover lessons as productive learning time rather than as a ‘baby sitting’ service. As an added benefit, out of lesson hours – before school, lunch, twilights and holiday, the school now has a learning space that can be used for seminars, coursework clinics, homework and community training.

Once Discovery was established – because of the reduced costs spent on supply – the school could promise permanent staff that they would never have to take a cover lesson again.

For lesson content, the wish list was perhaps more challenging. Both staff and students wanted software that would engage the students, have limitless content, tap into multiple intelligences, encourage research and independent learning, allow students to work both individually and in teams, encourage strong time management skills, and use memory strategies to remind students what they learnt last time. Teachers also wanted the software to provide class registers, require minimal set up and to allow them to access the work covered during the time they were absent, without masses of marking involved.

Through working with students, teachers, educational experts and software developers, Learning Bug was developed. We believe that it answers all of the above requirements and schools across North Somerset are now using it – both in teacher-led and teacherless scenarios. More information on Learning Bug can be found at www.learningbug.co.uk

John Wells, Headteacher, Clevedon Community School
jwells@clevedon.n-somerset.sch.uk

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