Support Officers Used to Cover Planned Teacher Absences

A retired teacher has raised concerns over the use of education support officers to cover teachers for planned absences and during time allocated for planning and preparation (PPA).

The ex teacher, who asked not to be named, told Gef the practice is becoming more regular.

They said that the rule has always been understood to be that it is fine to ask teaching assistants to cover in an emergency for a short time, eg, 30 mins for an unplanned absence. 

And added: ‘However in a few schools they are being asked to cover whole classes for planned absence and PPA time. This saves on using a teacher (even though PPA is accounted for in staffing budget) and allows the school to give more release to senior managers for instance.   

‘For instance, most primary schools have a deputy head who teaches a class for some of the time, budgets generally don’t allow for anything else. However some schools have a non teaching deputy and cover the shortfall with teaching assistants (TA). In any event it is likely that classes left with even a very able TA will be left with unchallenging tasks. The provision for children with additional needs also suffers.’

Instead of ‘occasional cover’, the retired teacher said ‘actually happening is that they are regularly being asked to cover whole classes alone without training or support’.

They also shared part of a leaflet from their union, the National Educators Union (NEU) which said it had ‘concerns’ over the use of support staff. In the leaflet, the union praised the value of the support staff but said they ‘should not be forced into covering regular PPA or planned absences of teachers’.

NEU Branch Secretary Leona Bell told Gef: ‘A practice, which does not appear to be widespread at present, is growing whereby level 3 education support officers are being used to cover teachers in planned absences and during PPA time (time allocated to teachers for their planning and preparation in weekly timetabled slots). 

‘Senior Education Support officers (level 3) are employed to provide focused, small group interventions and to support classroom teachers in the classroom. Their role is a vital role in allowing a greater range of interventions for students who require it. When a level 3 support officer is used for cover, they are being removed from their vital role in school meaning that the students lose the benefit of planned intervention and support and, instead, being placed in a role they are not qualified for – the classroom teacher.

‘The NEU is clear that a qualified teacher should be in front of a class and so managers should use qualified teachers to cover absences.  The only time it would be appropriate to use an Education support officer would be in an emergency where, for instance, a teacher might have to go home during the day through illness and a qualified supply teacher is unavailable. They certainly should not be used when managers know in advance of the absence OR for weekly PPA time.’

An education spokesman said: ‘The role of Senior Education Support Officers (level 3) is to support teachers, pupils or provide support in a technical resource area (depending on the specific role).  There are various levels of Education Support Officers, and the duties of a level 3 role states that staff may supervise whole classes occasionally during the short term absence of teachers.’