A budget is only as good as the moment it’s written – something that’s especially true when it comes to school staffing. Schools don’t have the luxury of being able to cover staff absence – particularly where teachers are concerned – by simply leaving the work to be ‘picked up’ when the absentee returns to work. The immediacy of need means there has to be a cover strategy in place, which will, of course, cost money.
The decision as to what this strategy should look like will have to be made at the start of the financial year. Will the school choose a staff absence policy, buy in to the LA-excepted items scheme or budget for supply, even though the costs are unknown? The cost of staff absence is increasing, and just one teacher absence per week can be expensive. Take the following example:
Cost for supply = £165 per day
One teacher absent for one week = £6,270
The decision on how to manage this needs to be a joint one that takes into account strategy, probability and cost. It should also be informed by an historical view, although this won’t necessarily be an indication of what will definitely happen moving forward. In the majority of schools the staff make-up will change year on year, which is why your cover strategy should be annually reviewed.
A dynamic, up-to-date staffing structure should contain an element of absence cost within it and signpost to the staff wellbeing policy. To help analyse some of the costs involved, set a three-year budget that considers the following:
The probability of maternity/paternity leave
If you have a young staff the probability of this will be medium to high, so you may wish to consider an excepted items policy.
The pressures exerted on staff in addition to standard expectations will vary depending on the school’s situation. If this is the case at your setting, you might want to consider taking out absence insurance.
An historical analysis
Your absence record will affect any insurance premiums you choose to pay for – though you may be able to use this to gain additional insight into your staff needs and plan accordingly.
Ongoing training needs
An awareness of staff development needs that span more than one financial year will allow you to write the relevant costs into your CPD budget, rather than relying on your overstretched supply pot.
Forward planning for those events that will need supply will let you cost up the cover required by any given trip and plan accordingly – including whether or not it can still go ahead.
There are also some other ‘easy wins’, through which you can minimise disruption to your students’ learning experience. If you have any part-time staff, they might be willing to agree a supply contract for cover, which means your supply will be covered by someone that staff and students in the school already know.
You could also consider appointing cover supervisors, or offer some of your TAs the opportunity to train for and sign a higher level teaching assistant cover contract, so they can fill such roles when needed.
Be sensitive to the limits of any strategies you may already have in place. For instance, insurance policies often include an excess, with the result that payouts can fall significantly short of need. Equally, having a cover strategy in place can still carry risks if the people it relies on are themselves ever absent, on leave or unable to cover due to other unforeseen factors. Ultimately, you’ll still need another plan in place as part of your risk management.
If you’ve tried and exhausted all the options above but still require some form of supply cover, how should you go about ensuring continuity while demonstrating best value and staying within your budget?
It’s important to remember that supply agencies are businesses, and therefore subject to the same industry pressures encountered in other sectors – which is something you can use to your advantage. Aim to secure best value and buy in from agencies by stressing to them the importance of recognising the school’s specific requirements, and the overriding need among your pupils for consistency and continuity.
The costs that you can expect to receive from supply agencies will vary, but essentially follow the same principles. Understand these, and your negotiations will exert more power and sway.
Day-to-day cover costs
You can often negotiate a better daily cover rate if you and the agency are prepared to agree on a ‘preferred supplier’ contract.
Long-term supply rates
These tend to work out as cheaper than day-today rates, so try to negotiate a longterm rate at the outset, even if you’re unsure as to the length of the absence in question.
This is a charge levied on a school when a temporary teacher is taken onto the school’s permanent staff. These can be extremely high, and should always be known about in advance. Be wary of them, since schools have often been caught out when taking on former agency staff who previously worked at their school while on their old agency’s books. That can be seen by the agency concerned as having facilitated an introduction, and thus trigger a temp-to-perm fee.
Finally, it’s worth noting some recent work carried out by the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) as part of the DfE’s current efforts to reduce schools’ supply costs. The CCS’ new framework, ‘RM3826 / Supply Teachers and Temporary Staff in Educational Establishments’ is now live and can be found here.
This is a new initiative that aims to provide a compliant and cost effective way for schools to recruit staff, particularly into temporary posts.
Suppliers have been encouraged to sign up to the framework, through which there will be transparency in costs and no temp to permanent fees if employees remain in post after 12 weeks. It may well be that your preferred supplier is already signed up to the framework, and that you might be able to negotiate a better rate than what you’re currently paying.
On its own, the CCS supply framework can’t eliminate the unpredictable nature of supply, the fluctuating costs involved and the inherent difficulties there are with accurate forecasting and budgeting – but it will at least help you avoid any nasty surprises and therefore give your budget a little more stability.
Of course, there’s a whole other side to the supply equation, which is how to manage the disruption to learning it can cause – but we’ll save that for another article another time…
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent.