School budgets ‘on a knife edge’ due to soaring supply staff costs

Schools are “on a knife edge” as the mounting costs of supply staff parachuted in to replace isolating teachers could leave them out of cash “by Christmas”. 

A survey from the NAHT school leaders’ union, based on more than 2,000 responses, has found schools are spending on average £2,454 more on supply staff than they would have expected halfway through the first term. 

Temporary teaching staff and additional teaching assistant time were the two biggest reasons for schools incurring extra Covid costs – with 62 per cent and 53 per cent of schools respectively saying they had paid out for these reasons. 

In addition, 65 per cent of respondents reported the number of lessons that they have needed to cover due to staff absence had increased. 

Daniel Wright, headteacher at St Anne’s RC High School in Stockport, said his school had already burned through £17,000 of its £52,000 supply budget due to Covid.

He explained problems were not simply related to Covid cases within the school, but also teachers needing to self-isolate to provide childcare to their own children when their bubble burst at school, as well as for the usual sickness cover. 

“The supply budget we have this year has been massively hit – it will be gone by Christmas if we continue at this rate,” he said. 

Wright explained that a supply teacher cost around £160 a day and of the 51 teaching staff on site up to eight had been absent at one time – including the entire RE department of the Catholic school. 

This would mean around 46 lessons needing to be covered before taking into consideration lunch and break duties “to keep the site safe”. 

Meanwhile, another respondent to the NAHT survey labelled the supply costs as “crippling” while another warned “we’re on a knife edge, I have no more than 15 days left in my supply budget”. 

The Department for Education previously released data on the number of teachers absent during the limited opening of schools last academic year. However, it has not done so since the full return of schools.

The DfE said it is still collecting data on teacher absence and is continually reviewing what it publishes.

But figures from Teacher Tapp show the weekly absence has been consistent at between three and four per cent of teachers off. As previously reported, four per cent would equate to 25,000 teachers nationally.

Wright said that to negate the staff problems, his school is employing a rota system – with years 9 and 10 learning remotely from home for three days to free up school staff to cover the lessons needed.

Wright claimed this was because the “quality from supply teachers is typically poor. It’s not education, it’s keeping children occupied and supervised, but they are certainly not being taught”.

“We are going to have to do a rota in and rota out system until such a time when staffing levels improve at the school,” Wright added. 

School business manager Lisa Lancaster said it had been “extremely difficult to get cover staff in” – for instance, from other schools in her academy trust (which
we haven’t named), who were all themselves stretched.

She added that schools’ problems are compounded further as insurance companies say they will not cover losses of self-isolating teachers. 

But the increased supply demand is proving to be a boon for agencies. Supply provider Zen Educate, a social enterprise, has reported a 331 per cent increase in bookings of supply teachers in September, compared with same period in 2019. 

The majority of the growth has been in schools booking supply for two weeks, providing cover for teachers who are self-isolating with either a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus. 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT said the situation is “absolutely unsustainable”. 

“This wasn’t budgeted for and the government is so far refusing any reimbursement. Given how tight budgets were pre-Covid, this spells financial disaster for many.”

He added that behind the financial costs were “the uncalculated hours teachers are spending covering multiple lessons for shielding staff, or school leaders having to teach and cover lunch and breaktime as well as doing their own full-time jobs”.