August 20, 2009

When we go back to school in September one aspect of teaching life should have changed for good. Due to an agreement made several years ago, qualified teachers, other than supply teachers, should no longer have to do cover, except for emergencies. (For those non-teachers reading this, cover is when, during “non-contact time” you have to take another teacher’s lessons because they are ill, on a trip or too important to actually have to teach their own classes.) There is no requirement that covers have to be for a teacher’s own subject, and in bad schools (i.e. most of them) classes will act up for teachers they don’t know. As a result, particularly when you are new to a school, covers tend to be a mix of baby-sitting and riot control, and only every so often is anything resembling a lesson allowed to take place.

Cover has always been a good way of telling how much a school cares about its teaching staff. This has been particularly in the last few years as many schools have significantly reduced the amount of covers, while the worst managed schools have continued as if workload agreements didn’t apply to them.

Here are some of the things schools can do to make covers as unpleasant as possible:

1) Make covers frequent. If a school really doesn’t care about teaching staff then dumping lots of cover on teachers is a cheap money saving option. It lowers morale, makes teachers more stressed and reduces time for marking and preparation, but unless you actually think that teachers should do their job well, there is no reason to avoid making their job unnecessarily difficult.

2)  Make covers unpredictable. If teachers do not know in advance which hours of the day covers will take place, and could lose their non-contact time at the drop of a hat then they are unable to plan their day properly. As a result they will end up rushing to do all their preparation before school, or after school the previous day, even on days when they should have non-contact time. Mornings will be spent playing “cover roulette” gambling on whether you will be taken for cover or not and coming up with alternative schedules for the day’s work depending on whether or not you get taken for cover.

3) Organise covers informally. Leave it to people who are already busy, or even to absent teachers, to prepare lessons for teachers doing cover. Inevitably, most lessons end up being worksheets and wordsearches. Often teachers turn up to find no work set; sometimes because nobody has remembered to set it; sometimes because it has been left in the wrong place; sometimes because it has been destroyed by a student. Or the work may require resources that simply aren’t available, or only be enough for twenty minutes of an hour long lesson. And let’s not forget the 11 words which make up the worst cover-work of all: “They are working on their coursework. They know what to do.”

4) Pay no attention to who is being given covers. So for instance if there is a year 10 boys PE cover and the choice is between Mr Brown, an MFL teacher who is new to the school and doesn’t teach year 10, and Mr White, a PE teacher, who has been at the school twenty years, and is head of year 10, then give the cover to Mr Brown. If you are well established in a school then cover lessons become a convenient place to do marking while children sit quietly copying from a textbook. If you are new to a school covers are likely to be some kind of riot. At one school I worked at this distinction was so well recognised that I found that if I took a pile of marking into cover lessons the children just assumed I was important and behaved accordingly.

On top of that, there are things schools can do to really get the message across that when it comes to covers they are treating teachers like shit:

1)  Make it clear to staff that you are deliberately trying to give them as many covers as possible. This one is hard to believe, why would bosses who treat their workforce badly publicise it? Yet I have frequently been in meetings where senior managers explained quite happily to staff that they were trying to find out what the maximum number of covers they could make staff do is, apparently under the impression that teachers would be so grateful that the school was trying to follow the rules, that they wouldn’t actually think “why are they trying to make things as unpleasant as possible for us?”

2) Don’t give SMT anywhere near as many covers as mainscale teachers, even though they have more non-contact periods.

3) Make excuses for making the cover situation so bad. For instance, claim that supply teachers can’t be trusted, or that non-teaching cover supervisors are incompetent, and that only people who already have a full time-table and backlog of work can be trusted to do the job properly.

So, goodbye, and good riddance, to covers. You will not be missed.


  1. Hilarious and I love the idea of actually bringing in marking to trick the kids into good behaviour- wish I had thought of that.

    I dont completley mourne their loss though- whilst I hated them as much as the next guy I’m aware this will come at a price- reflected in my taxation.

    Plus, it will probably make abseentism worse as some staff now have no moral quelm at leaving their colleagues ‘in the lurch’, now it will simply mean a pay day for some australian supply teacher.

    I utterly agree with your comment about the SLT not being used for cover enough- always a source of staffroom bitterness- I always thought best practice was to show on the board who was away for the year and who did the cover- fair and transparent!

    I remember a head teacher telling me that when he put himself on the cover rota, staff attendance dramatically improved- funny that?

  2. Interesting post, and particularly relevant to me because I’m an NQT without a job for September and I’ve registered with supply agencies. Am I about to experience hell on earth, would I be better off stacking shelves until a permament job comes up? Do you have any survival tips for me? Thanks.

  3. 1. Good luck

    2. Try and request OK ish schools

    3. Dress in a way that makes it difficult for kids to insult you (no pink ties etc)

    4. Learn the schools individual discipline policy

    5. Try and work out if the school cares about stnadards or not- if they do then try and get the class to work- if not, merely babysit

    6. If the school has a sin bin, then dont be afraid to use if you have an awkward class. When a class comes in you can often identify the real nutter quickly- if you send them early to the sin bin it can be very calming.

    7. If you have to write an incident sheet always use moderate language and use quotes.eg he said “go fuck yourself”, she said “you are a pedo” etc. This makes it harder for the school to aviod exclusion.

    8. Try and make a joke in bad situations, use rewards, talk about football, talk about eastenders, try and get onside but without appearing needy. What do you reckon of Jackson sir/miss?- “I think he was talented but I think he was guilty…” “you are safe sir”

    9. Try and establish you are a non nonsense but fair person. If the environment wont even allow you to address the class then sit and read a paper or listen to your mp3 player. This is quite common.

    10. Feedback to your agency about the school in a calm way. If they like you they will send you to good schools.

    11. Never be in a room by yourself with students- supply teachers are more likely to receive malicious allegations.

    12. Do not set detentions for yourself- only set ones if they are run by someone else.

    13. Try and get on with everyone- dont whinge or moan- try and get a good reputation but if a kid really is out of order then report it.

  4. Thanks Rob, I’m going to print that because it sounds like really good advice.
    One other, perhaps fatal, problem that relates to number 3: I’m ginger. How do I deal with that?

  5. wow… life dealt you a tough hand there!

    1. dye your hair

    2. “surely some sort of hat is in order” (Blackadder 1986)

    2. or take advantage of it! being a member of an oppressed minority may give you credibility with some of the ethnic minorites in your classes.

  6. 1) If you get bad classes in a school that doesn’t care, don’t try to teach, just babysit. I know it feels bad, as a teacher you want to learn the kids something, but in this case its so much smarter to just give up.

  7. Rob

    Very good advice above, but remember – this could be your big chance!

    Schools have enough problems recruiting people – you (possibly) could have the ideal opportunity. Grab it with both hands.

    Schools really see taking on supply teachers as a hassle (almost) free solution. In my experience things can change quickly and people around december time start dropping out, stressed, had enough etc. If you’ve proved to be just half decent the chances are they will keep you on – the school pays off the agency and job done (it happened to me).

    Be enthusiastic and keen, talk to people in the staffroom etc
    I would advise you to dress in a sharp suit (even though you might end up taking PE).

    Always have some random tasks that can done in any lesson with no preperation. You will be shocked by how little cover work will be set and it generally falls into what OA has said.

    In some / many schools just having them sat down will be seen as a success and at least you’ll be seen to have them under control.

    Trust me – this could be your big chance

    • sorry – thats for Neil, good advice Rob

  8. Thanks, so are you saying generic activities for any subject? Can you give any examples? And thanks again for reminding me of the positive side of supply!

    • Try and get to the school as early as possible, at least 20 minutes before morning briefing / tutor time. find out what lessons you will be teaching – you won’t be in same room, teaching the same subject for the whole day. Go and find out if cover work has been set for at least the first 2 lessons, where are the text books / worksheets etc etc.

      Line them up outside and introduce yourself.
      The main rule is – nobody gets out of their chair for any reason.

      when i say activities – i mean anything, word games – everything that relates to the word red (for the younger ones), draw what they like doing in the back of their books, make a poster. There’s also a lot to be said for just talking to them normally about life and their future etc (especially for the older ones). Try and relate everything to them. The more you do it the quicker you can think on your feet.

      If it is a text book based subject there is a good chance you can have a decent lesson. In a text book lesson it goes something like this –
      get someone to read out the text (or yourself), now you’ve got 10 minutes to answer the first 2 quetions then we’ll go through the answers and so on. If this isn’t going to work (you can tell) then get them to copy one of the diagrams etc or just copy part of the writing (many kids like doing boring tasks that require no thinking). given the choice most kids will want to draw something.

      the main thing is not to have really high expectations of the quality / amount of work produced but to have them under control.

      move around the room and talk to them about their interests. They will want to know things about you. don’t be afraid to tell them your age, football team you support, are you married etc – don’t be defensive you probably won’t see them again. most of this is about just getting through the lesson.

      If you have a bad lesson don’t blame yourself – it will be them everytime and their poor attitude and behaviour.

      have spare pencils rather than pens and hope you don’t get many year 9 covers.

  9. Neil, if you can bear it with reasonable equanimity, it’s not a bad job. I did it for seven years in a hellish school and they had me back almost full-time because I didn’t cry and run out at lunchtime. They don’t expect miracles but they do expect you to cope without constantly involving other members of staff.

    Don’t try being Mr Hard Guy with the kids because it just doesn’t wash. Cheerful and helpful is the way to go. I used to take a newspaper with me and read them their horoscopes at the end of the lesson if they were goodish. I also find a blank map of the US with the states’ borders drawn in and a list of states down the side keeps KS3 boys happy for ages.

    And you never know, you might get a nice school

  10. Thanks Lily, that’s more good advice, encouragement and practical tips. I think I would get used to being a cover guy in one school, it’s going from place to place each day that has got me worrying!

  11. Not wanting to put a downer on the loss of cover, but doesn’t the new rule say that teachers should not ‘routinely do cover’? Have I got the wording wrong, or does this suggest plenty of interpretation wriggle room for unsympathetic SLT?

    I got out of cover a couple of years ago by moving to a Sixth Form. Still get to do the routine admin tasks and invigilation though.

  12. Neil, i’ve just started a teaching post directly employed by a school after being on supply since easter last year. I’m not going to repeat the already good advice that you’ve been given, if you want some more in detailed stuff you might want to trawl amazon as they do have a few supply teaching based books.

    But anyway, only the real reason why i’m posting. Whilst working supply i was able to complete my induction year. You can only do this if you get long term supply and it can also build up pro-rata, and if your long term at more than one school you can do it in both. I also found supply was really helpful in giving me flexibility in my approach to teaching.

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