The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers

Teachers providing substitution cover for staff vacancies and the absence of permanent colleagues make a valuable contribution to the education system which depends heavily on them to maintain the smooth running of its schools. On average, pupils in Northern Ireland's schools spend approximately ten per cent of their school year being taught by teachers providing substitution cover. In 2000-01 this cost £38 million and equated to an additional 1,735 full-time teachers. £10 million of this was spent providing cover for sickness absence, while in the same period, the sick pay bill for absent teachers amounted to more than £15 million.

A report published today by, John Dowdall, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland examined how teachers are selected, managed, supported and developed when they provide substitute cover and how effectively the attendance of permanent teachers is managed in the first place. Given the acknowledged importance of academic learning time, the report makes a number of recommendations which should help schools, employing authorities (the Education and Library Boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) and the Department of Education to ensure continuity in the quality of education received by pupils when substitution cover is used.

Main Findings

In the course of its examination the Audit Office surveyed 100 schools. While many of these had positive experiences of substitute teachers, 35 of the 66 schools that replied (53 per cent) indicated either that there were usually not enough or never enough good quality substitutes available (paragraph 2.40).

In 1984 and 1988 the Department advised employers that when filling temporary teaching posts, preference should be given to newly-qualified, unemployed teachers. Following a PAC report in 1992, the Department said that it would regularly review the extent to which teachers who had retired prematurely were re-employed. In addition, in 1999, it said that it was discouraging the use of prematurely retired teachers as substitutes. However, we found that, as a proportion of all temporary days worked, those worked by prematurely retired teachers rose from over ten per cent to over 13 per cent between 1996-97 and 2000-01 (paragraphs 3.5 to 3.10).

Comparative data for Great Britain shows that Northern Ireland schools have a much higher level of teacher sickness absence than the English regions. In 2000, on average, just over ten working days were lost for every full time teaching post in Northern Ireland compared to six days in England. If teacher sickness absences in Northern Ireland were reduced to the levels in Great Britain (i.e. by 40 per cent), pro-rata savings on substitute teachers would be of the order of £4 million, while the teaching and learning benefits of £6 million worth of permanent teachers' time would not be lost to the classroom (paragraphs 4.5 to 4.7).

Assuring the Quality of Teachers Providing Substitution Cover

Research from England and Scotland points up the advantages of having a more centralised system of teaching cover, in particular the opportunities for better planning, monitoring and quality control. The report recommends that the employing authorities should consider setting up and maintaining a networked booking database which would provide more detail on the previous work experience, areas of expertise and references of teachers providing substitution cover (paragraphs 2.9 and 2.10).

The report recommends that effective induction should be a standard procedure offered to substitute teachers when they take up appointments (paragraph 2.25).

No specific training provision is made for substitute teachers. The report acknowledges that the Boards are conscious of the need to give such teachers access to training but we recommend that the Department, the General Teaching Council and the employing authorities should work together to develop a system of on-going training and support for teachers providing substitution cover, drawing on available good practice (2.28 and 2.35).

In order to ensure that professional standards are maintained, there should be mechanisms in place to help substitute teachers evaluate their own teaching skills. We consider that action is required at various levels within the education system, for example:

  • individual schools need to ensure that, in addition to effective induction, teachers providing substitution cover receive timely feedback on their performance; and
  • the Education and Training Inspectorate should consider, as a separate exercise, a review of the quality of teaching provided during substitution cover (paragraph 2.48).

The Re-employment of Retired Teachers

We acknowledge the extent of the practical difficulties that can confront schools in providing effective substitution arrangements. However, young and newly qualified teachers working as substitutes today are the permanent teachers of the future. Providing newly-qualified teachers with sufficient opportunity to experience teaching as substitutes will be an investment in the quality of the future teaching stock. In line with this, the report recommends that the Department should also consider guidance on limiting the re-employment of retired teachers' to very short-term vacancies (paragraph 3.14).

Managing Teacher Absences

We found that targets have not been established for reducing sickness absence either at the regional level or by all individual employing authorities. We recommend that the sickness management strategies of the employing authorities should be based on the establishment of local patterns and trends in sickness absence, the identification of appropriate levels of management accountability and the setting of demanding targets for reducing sickness absence within their schools (paragraph 4.23).

In order to minimise teacher absences due to training, we believe that there is scope for more innovation in its delivery. In particular, we recommend that the Boards continue to seek new ways of applying available and developing information technology to meet training needs. The Boards should also explore the scope for use of "outside hours" training, with teachers being paid to attend such courses, although the extent to which this can be used may be limited (paragraph 4.24).

The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers