Increase in supply teaching to cover absences 'hits learning'

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Media captionOne Denbighshire school has reduced its reliance on supply teachers

An increasing use of supply teachers to cover sickness absence is affecting pupils' learning, two critical reports have warned.

Reliance on temporary cover when teachers are absent means pupils are often given work which is not demanding, said the Wales Audit Office and watchdog Estyn.

They said secondary school pupils were worst affected by the issue.

The Welsh government said it will consider the findings of the reports.

The problem stems from teacher absence in Wales - with nearly 10% of lessons being covered by supply teachers.

On average, each teacher in Wales is absent for seven days a year in Wales, compared to 4.5 days in England.

Half of teacher absences were due to sickness, a fifth were due to teacher training and development and 10% were because of teachers attending meetings.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) said schools in Wales spent an estimated £54m on supply cover in 2011-12.

Of this, £22.0m (41% of total) was spent on cover supplied by recruitment agencies and £31.75m (59% of total) on cover from those employed by the school or through a local authority pool where one existed.

If the absence levels in Wales could be reduced to that in England, it is estimated Welsh schools could reduce the number of days requiring cover by around 60,000, saving over £9m a year in the cost of teacher cover.

According to Estyn: "The greatest negative impact of teacher absence on pupils' learning occurs in secondary schools.

"Supply staff who do not normally work at the school do not know the needs of the learners as well as their usual classroom teachers and the work set is often too undemanding and does not engage learners."

'Ever moving goalposts'

A Welsh government spokesperson said: "We asked Estyn to carry out a review of supply teaching in Wales so we could see the impact on learner progress of schools' strategies to cover the absence of teachers.

"The work the Wales Audit Office has carried out complements this review with regards to the wider aspects of value for money.

"Both reports published raise a number of recommendations for us, local authorities and individual schools that we will now consider and respond to in due course."

Shadow Minister for Education Angela Burns AM, said: "The lives of teaching staff have been made almost intolerable by successive Labour ministers and it is no surprise that so many are being forced away from the classroom.

"Over-burdened with red tape, demoralised, stressed, and dealing with ever-moving goalposts, our teachers are not being allowed to do the very thing we need them to do - teach.

"It is these staff who know what's best for our children and these staff who should be allowed to work with them freely - and permanently.

"Instead, both teachers and children are treading water in a sea of Labour mistakes and inaction that is inevitably leading to unacceptable attainment levels."

Mrs Burns added: "The current Labour minister must act on this report immediately and investigate the real causes behind teacher absence.

'Huge pressures'

NUT Wales policy officer Owen Hathway said: "The report's findings will need to be carefully digested and will no doubt throw up a lot of questions for the Welsh government, local authorities and the wider teaching profession.

"The two key issues to address are how do we limit the number of days that cover is provided and how do we support supply teachers in respect of ensuring high quality, consistent practice.

"On the first point it is important we look at the stress and workload placed on teachers. There will, of course, be occasions where teachers, like anyone in any walk of life, become ill.

"Equally, it is essential to standards that teachers do have time off on occasion to undergo training to improve their skills and share best practice with other practitioners.

"However, there is no doubt far too many individuals who are off work because the huge pressures placed on them are causing stress-related illnesses.

"Tackling the causes of stress will hopefully reduce the amount of teaching days lost in this way."

Mr Hathway added: "There exists far too many examples of supply agencies that hit morale and motivation by depressing wages, terms and conditions.

"Aside from this, individuals operating through supply agencies are not provided with access to professional development as they would be if employed through a school or local authority directly.

"This is a crisis in education standards."

The Welsh teaching union Ucac called for a full review of the supply teacher system in Wales.

A spokeswoman said the more than 40 supply agencies in Wales were undercutting each other on price, resulting in teachers losing out on pay and conditions.

She said: "It's bad for the teachers but its also bad for the education system because it's bound to affect standards.

"The teachers don't know what the needs of the learners are because there's no relationship with the school."

Neil Foden, head teacher at Friars Comprehensive School, Bangor, and a member of the national executive of the NUT, blamed the pace of change in Wales.

"There are far too many innovations, far too many new policies. They give us far too little time to bed in," he told BBC Radio Wales.

"Things like that have far more of an impact than the use of supply teachers which has always happened in schools."

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