The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers: Follow-up Report

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, today publishes a follow-up to the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s (NIAO) 2002 report on the management of substitution cover for teachers. Principal among his findings is that the cost of substitutes covering for teacher absences has increased significantly – up in real terms by 40 per cent since 2000-01, to over £66 million in 2008-09. An additional consequence of this increase in the incidence of substitution cover is the possibility of it having a negative impact on pupil learning and achievement.

Mr Donnelly concludes in the report that, while the Department of Education and teacher employing authorities had taken action on recommendations made in a Westminster Public Accounts Committee report in 2003, the management of teacher absence and substitution cover are areas where there continues to be significant scope for improvement and savings.

Historically, data on teacher attendance and substitution cover has been limited and unreliable and the report expresses disappointment that it has taken six years to implement a new management information system to improve the situation. Moreover, ongoing software problems continue to impede the Department, employing authorities and schools in developing a more effective understanding of the costs, patterns and levels of substitution cover.

The report acknowledges the improvement in average teacher sickness absence from over 10 working days in 2000-01 to 7.8 days in 2008-09. Following the PAC report the Department had aimed to reduce this to 6 days by 2008, in line with English schools at that time. However, this was not achieved and the target was dropped and replaced by a target to reduce the overall costs of substitution by ten per cent. Sickness absence in England has since fallen to 5.0 days and during the NIAO report the Department reinstated the 6 days target to be achieved by 2010-2011.

Employing authorities and school sectors vary considerably in their teacher sickness absence rates. For instance, sick absences in controlled schools are 7.1 days, compared with 8.5 days in the maintained sector; teachers in special schools have a particularly high level of absence – 9.7 days, which according to the Department reflects the challenging nature of teaching in a difficult setting. These variations suggest that there are opportunities for reductions in sickness absence if further action is taken to improve management, oversight and expectations of teacher attendance.

The report recommends that there is a need to build up a profile of teacher absence across schools which will allow managers to identify patterns of absences and help them to understand and respond to the range of factors which influence, and are influenced by, teacher absence. In the Department’s view, the establishment of a new Education and Skills Authority should provide a more streamlined and consistent administrative context within which to develop and continuously improve effective management information and reporting systems.

PAC sessions at Westminster in 1993 and 2003 recommended that stricter controls should be exercised over the re-employment of those teachers who had benefited from premature retirement terms. However, the report found that, despite efforts by the Department, attempts to curb the use of prematurely retired teachers for substitution cover have met with little success. Prematurely retired teachers provided 62,310 days of substitution cover in 2008-09 – 13 per cent of total substitution cover days which is the same as in 2000-01. This equates to around 320 whole time equivalent permanent teachers.

The Department has made legislation making employing authorities liable for the full cost of teachers’ premature retirement compensation with effect from April 2010. It anticipates that this will limit the granting of premature retirement benefits and, over time will reduce the number of prematurely retired teachers available to provide substitution cover.

The ability of newly qualified teachers to get teaching experience by providing substitution cover for permanent teachers has been significantly constrained by the willingness of schools to re-employ prematurely retired teachers. The fact that falling school enrolments have not been matched by a reduction in numbers entering teacher training means that there will be fewer opportunities available to newly qualified teachers. The report concludes that teacher workforce planning at the strategic level needs to ensure that the numbers of newly qualified teachers coming through the training system is in line with the numbers needed to fill vacancies and provide substitute cover given the numbers of re-employed teachers who continue to provide temporary cover in schools.