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Consequences for learners’ progress and school budgets if teachers’ absence from the classroom not managed well

12 November 2020
  • Action taken to improve support and respond to concerns around supply teacher pay but COVID-19 and curriculum changes present new challenges

    The Welsh Government has provided better access to training resources for supply teachers, responded to concerns about the national agency contract – including a minimum pay rate for supply teachers – and has tried to reduce the time teachers are out of the classroom. However, according to a report published today by the Auditor General for Wales, the overall impact of these actions is unclear and at a time when the education system is under extra pressure.

    Previously we found that around 10% of classes were covered by someone who was not the class teacher, most commonly because of sickness and professional development. The Welsh Government has been trying to reduce teacher workload and bureaucracy, factors that can contribute to stress-related absence, and manage the impact of professional development activities on classroom teaching time. There is now a range of Welsh Government guidance relevant to covering teachers’ absence although there is evidence that this is not always being reflected on the ground.

    Supply teachers and other cover staff now have better access to online training and resources for their own professional development and the current national agency staffing contract provides better coverage of basic training provision in areas such as safeguarding. However, the potential cost of training and/or the lost opportunity to work and secure income, remains a concern for many.

    Since September 2019, the Welsh Government has included a minimum pay level for supply teachers in its national agency staffing contract, equivalent to the bottom of the main teachers’ scale (currently just under £139 a day). This was welcomed by the supply teaching community although it is likely to increase pressure on school budgets and could drive schools to consider arrangements outside the national contract or that do not rely on qualified teachers. The Welsh Government provided funding for a trial scheme which saw newly qualified teachers employed to provide cover across 19 school clusters, although costs were an issue when the funding stopped.

    Gaps in data make it difficult to say whether the actions taken by the Welsh Government are having the intended effects. This includes information on total expenditure on cover arrangements, how cover is provided or its impact on learners. There is also some uncertainty about the uptake of the training resources that have been made available. A future Education Workforce Survey may provide some relevant evidence. The last survey reported in 2017 and plans for a further survey earlier in 2020 have been delayed.

    Looking ahead, the Welsh Government estimates that schools will need a lot of cover to release staff to prepare for the new curriculum. It estimates this costing just under £11 million in 2020-21. We are not clear if there are enough active supply teachers available to do this, especially as there are likely to be demands for staff for the ‘Recruit, Recover and Raise standards’ initiative and higher than average sickness absence or staff self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meeting the demand for Welsh-medium schools and shortage subjects such as maths and physics may be particularly difficult.

    Our recommendations to the Welsh Government include:

    • Reinforcing in its policy development and implementation that effective management of staff absence is fundamental to ensure positive learner outcomes;
    • Setting out long-term measures of success against which progress in improving the quality and sufficiency of supply teachers can be assessed; and
    • Making sure that cover staff employed through the national agency contract are working within their role description.
    Workers who provide temporary classroom cover in our schools are a vital part of our education system. But there are consequences for learners’ progress and school budgets if teachers’ absence from the classroom is not managed well. There have been a lot of important developments since our 2013 report, but the Welsh Government could do more to demonstrate the impact of the action it has taken. It also needs to consider whether there are enough temporary workers available to help manage the COVID-19 response alongside preparations for the new curriculum, particularly where there are already known shortages. Adrian Crompton, Auditor General

    Related Report

    Covering teachers’ absence: Follow-up

    View more

    Notes to Editors:

    • In 2013, we looked at arrangements for covering teachers’ absence, working with Estyn – the schools inspectorate for Wales. Taken together, the reports raised concerns about the management of absence, the impact on learners’ progress, support for supply teachers and the cost of cover. Since 2013, there have been several other reviews and developments in Welsh Government policy, guidance and contracting arrangements. We assess the latest position and the impact of some of these actions in this follow-up report.
    • Appendix 2 in the report provides a timeline of key developments since 2013, including a Ministerial Taskforce report [opens in new window] in 2017. Appendix 3 provides further detail about the current national contract for agency staff in education and the changes that have been made compared with previous contracts. There are currently 25 different agencies on the contract.
    • Schools were suspended from 20 March to 28 June 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible supply teachers working for agencies on the national framework were furloughed through the UK Government’s job retention scheme. The Welsh Government expected councils and schools to continue to pay those directly employed to the end of their contracts. But the long-term impact of this disruption on the supply workforce and agencies remains to be seen.
    • Anonymous response to our consultation in early 2020: “A qualified, experienced supply teacher, delivering a well-planned lesson that is either stand alone or part of the work pupils are doing, can be beneficial. If nothing else, pupils learn that they can have an interesting day learning from a new adult and develop resilience and adaptability. If expectations of cover are low or cover-teaching poor or non-existent, cover is damaging to children’s self-esteem, progress and learning.”
    • The Auditor General is the independent statutory external auditor of the devolved Welsh public sector. He is responsible for the annual audit of the majority of the public money spent in Wales, including the £20 billion of funds that are voted on annually by the Welsh Parliament. Elements of this funding are passed by the Welsh Government to the NHS in Wales (over £8 billion) and to local government (over £4 billion).
    • The audit independence of the Auditor General is of paramount importance. He is appointed by the Queen, and his audit work is not subject to direction or control by the Welsh Parliament or government. 
    • The Wales Audit Office (WAO) is a corporate body consisting of a nine member statutory Board which employs staff and provides other resources to the Auditor General, who is also the Board’s Chief Executive and Accounting Officer. The Board monitors and advises the Auditor General, regarding the exercise of his functions.
    • Audit Wales is the umbrella name for the Auditor General for Wales and the Wales Audit Office. Audit Wales is a registered trademark, but it is not a legal entity in itself.