In short supply: Cover costs soar as teacher shortages and illness bite

Investigation: Schools sound the alarm as finances hit by education's shrinking workforce

Investigation: Schools sound the alarm as finances hit by education's shrinking workforce

12 Jan 2023, 12:16

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Schools have sounded the alarm over “unprecedented” supply cover costs draining budgets amid soaring staff illness and widespread teacher shortages, costing the sector hundreds of millions a year.

Recently filed annual accounts from large academy trusts reveal the toll of the sector’s shrinking workforce.

Separate Schools Week analysis shows maintained schools spent a combined £622 million on supply cover in 2021-22, up more than a third year-on-year.

They spent £171 per pupil on supply costs last year – a five-year high and up from £160 per head in 2019, before Covid.

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

Figures from jobs site Indeed show 2,000 live adverts for supply teachers, with postings more than doubling as a share of total jobs on pre-pandemic trends.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said schools were “undoubtedly” more reliant on supply staff, linked to not only sickness absence but also the “very serious crisis in recruitment and retention”.

Sickness cover drains budgets

Cabot Learning Federation’s supply costs hit £2.3 million, up £500,000 on pre-Covid levels and rising twice as fast as its increased school numbers. A spokesperson said Covid’s “lingering impact” pushed absence well above pre-pandemic trends, with cover demand at “unprecedented highs”.

CLF has had to look beyond its usual contractors to find staff, which “inevitably” hiked costs.

Plymouth CAST also saw bills jump from £500,000 pre-pandemic to £636,000 in 2020-21 and £979,000 last academic year- despite a slight fall in school and pupil numbers.

The accounts state schools “experienced significant pressure of teaching supply costs, due to heavy sickness through winter and spring of the academic year”.

Creative Education Trust noted staff “stress levels and absence were high” in 2021-22, and highlighted “loss of key staff through resignation, ill health or otherwise” as one of the major risks facing its 17 schools. It spent £2.85 million on agency staff.

Last week Schools Week showed how high sickness absence continued into this academic year. Data from software firm Arbor showed staff absences last term at double 2019 levels, amid surging Covid and flu cases.

Recruitment woes exacerbate demand

Gavin Beart

Gavin Beart, education managing director at recruiters Reed, said Covid absences have “added fuel to the fire” of pre-pandemic recruitment challenges in recent years.

Northern Education Trust accounts noted recruitment had been “significantly challenging”, leaving some posts vacant throughout the year – “despite rigorous efforts to recruit staff and increased employee incentive schemes”.

Its agency bills reached £3.6 million, up from £2.7 million two years previously. The 34 per cent jump is twice the rate of its growth in school numbers.

Even a trust founded by former academies minister Lord Agnew warned of a “nationwide shortage of qualified teachers, with high numbers of individuals leaving the profession”.

Inspiration Trust added “soaring” wider costs and higher-than-expected staff pay would force it to tap reserves and limit some spending plans – blaming this too on “political instability”.

Pupil numbers have risen 27 per cent faster than teachers since 2017, with 3,600 more teachers needed to keep pace, analysis of official figures shows.

Recruitment targets have been repeatedly missed, and an Institute for Fiscal Studies report this week suggested recruitment and retention “have got worse this year”.

The National Education Union called this “no surprise” given real-terms pay cuts, warning pupils will “suffer greatly” from teacher shortages and linking it to its current strike ballot.

Ofsted’s annual report last month warned staffing shortages and Covid absences had “compounded” the pandemic’s impact on children’s progress since schools re-opened.

“It also delayed the return of sports, drama, music and other programmes,” it added.

Knock on supply teacher shortages

Niall Bradley

Niall Bradley, chair of the National Supply Teachers Network, said demand had evaporated during lockdown closures, but then been high for much of the pandemic – including autumn last year despite Covid isolation rules being relaxed.

Supply matching service Zen Educate saw demand last half term jump almost a third year-on-year.

But Ofsted noted Covid absences “left gaps not easily filled by the limited number of supply teachers”.

Figures are unavailable for England, but Wales saw an 11 per cent drop in supply teachers between 2019 and 2021.

Beart claimed while Reed had not hiked costs, some agencies “have used this time to capitalise” with higher demand driving up teachers’ rates.

However Bradley said many supply teachers were still earning no more than a decade ago, with staff not covered by national pay frameworks.

Half the supply teachers in a 2021 poll earnt under £125 a day. One leading academy trust recently advertised for supervisors to cover classes but not teach for as little as £74 a day, and secondary supply teachers as little as £110.

Beart said many new teachers’ first jobs were in supply, but some leave teaching altogether due to “dire rates and lots of pressure” – suggesting higher rates could help wider retention problems.

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