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Leadership & innovation., Teaching & Learning

‘Cover’ lessons….effective learning in your absence?

We are all absent from our classes from time to time, some of these instances are planned and some unfortunately, are out of our control. Either way this will inevitably have an impact on our students and ultimately the progress they make over the duration of an academic year and beyond. But have you ever stopped to think what this feels like from a students’ perspective or even considered how many hours of learning is lost for these young people? not to mention the impact upon the schools budget. It’s common sense to think that if a teacher is not teaching then students will not learn as much, but in terms of academic progress and attainment, what is the real damage and what simple strategies can be put in place to minimise this disruption to learning.  I don’t want to dwell on or get involved in the workload debate in this blog, which is in my opinion a significant factor in long-term teacher absence across the country and one I believe can be largely attributed to stress and exhaustion. So with this in mind, this blog isn’t written to make you feel guilty or even as an ‘attack’ on colleagues who are experiencing personal difficulty, the intention is to explore more around student outcomes and practical solutions to a potentially complex situation.


       “Schools didn’t prepare the supply cover properly so the teachers weren’t well enough informed.”


Ofsted found that supply teachers in secondary schools are four times more likely than permanent teachers to give sub-standard lessons. They went on to say “pupils’ work and behaviour is deteriorating in at least a half of all comprehensive schools because heads have to draft in temporary staff for significant periods”. They say that schools didn’t prepare the supply cover properly so the teachers weren’t well enough informed. They didn’t know things like who the children were with SEN in the class or what the range of academic ability was of the class(es) they were teaching. I believe this to be the critical element in setting effective lessons in your absence and perhaps one that is sometimes overlooked? Recently I tweeted this poll:


Just over two academic years ago we were a school that had just moved out of special measures, as you can imagine, times were tough and morale was low. Collateral damage was unquestionably staff exhaustion and as a consequence of this, some long-term absence. As a collective we were very keen to move the school forward under this new head of steam we had built up. However, with priority number one quality first teaching, we were in a ‘catch 22’ situation. I have read a lot of research which indicates that a loss of 10 days (assuming 6 hours of learning per day = 60 hours) of learning can have a detrimental impact on student outcomes.  So with this in mind, I decided to undertake some research of my own. Firstly I established that Year 8 was the worst hit in terms of the volume of cover lessons (1100 in total) and this was largely down to Faculties loading their best (and present) teachers into GCSE and A-Level classes (where accountability lies), and then in turn priortising year 9 (Key Stag 3 to 4 transition) and year 7 (new student experience). So lets take student A and student B comparable on the basis of prior attainment upon entry and personal circumstances including SEND. Student A had a total of 226 lessons (hours) of learning affected whilst student B only 35. I decided to compare the core subjects of Mathematics and English as these offered a constant from Key Stage 2. As you can probably predict, the findings were stark and profound. Student A had made only one sub-level of progress over the academic year in English whilst student B a whole level and similarly in Mathematics student A one sub level and student B two sub levels. I know that this isn’t a comprehensive study, but it’s most certainly enough to realise potentially how damaging to student outcomes this loss of teacher presence can be. And you’ll be pleased to hear that Student A is now in their final year of study and is back on track to achieve their target grades. I do worry however that this may not be the case for some students up and down the country and we must stand up and take notice.

Whilst conducting this small scale piece of research, I placed student and staff voice at the centre of it and this is what they had to say around the issue of teacher absence:

What the students said:

ž”Work set is mainly text book based and not fun. The same for all students so not challenging (higher ability).”

ž”Different people (teachers) make it difficult to build relationships, supply don’t know the systems and pupils often take advantage of this.”

ž”Behaviour is an issue, not ‘major stuff’ but chat, silliness, breaking the rules etc…..”

ž”Agency teachers are not seen as ‘actual teachers’.”

What the supply teachers said:

ž”There is silly behaviour at times and we are unsure of the correct procedure to deal with this.”

“At times there is a lack of respect from some students.”

“žIsolation – some faculties did not even say hello/check if okay.”

“žLack of consistency and quality of cover work set – no differentiation/challenge.”

We have moved a long way since this piece of work was undertaken, nevertheless this study provided the catalyst for us to look much more seriously at the whole support package around supply teachers and cover lessons.

Building capacity from within

Research has uncovered that spending on supply cover represents up to approximately 4.4% of a schools’ staffing budget over the course of an academic year, and in these times of austerity in education we, like many other schools are looking for creative and effective ways in which to reduce this. We now have a lead cover supervisor who coordinates the logistical day-to-day aspects of pedagogy and we are also recruiting teachers directly to our own ‘talent pool’. It is essential to remember that whilst a supply teacher (from an agency or your own talent pool) is in your school they are a member of your staff and should not be treated any differently. To achieve this we have a printed name badge ready for them (this helps massively in terms of attitudes of students) and we also provide a comprehensive ‘supply folder’ to help ensure consistency and typicality, which includes the following information:

  • Safeguarding information and our designated officers
  • Timing of the day and a map
  • School management information system user guide and password
  • Internal phone number list
  • Daily student bulletin
  • Drop Everything and Read strategy and timings
  • Individual Faculty information (who’s who – names/roles, curriculum overview, links to resources)
  • Policies: Teaching and learning, Uniform and Behaviour for Learning.


In the context of short-term and planned absences here are some suggestions (These are of course also applicable to long-term planned/unplanned absence, however these are dependent upon the context):

Top tips and questions to ask to ensure ‘cover’ lessons are planned well

Content; is what you have planned challenging, differentiated and engaging for all students? Does it link learning from previous episodes to future ones or is it a stand alone piece? Quite often there will be a non-specialist taking your class, therefore it is essential that the content is clearly accessible in terms of knowledge for the teacher to deliver confidently.

Planning; You will need to be explicit in your planning, and this does take time. The following information should be provided to allow a member of staff to familiarise themselves with your students:

  • Seating plan
  • Class photo/list to include: SEND information, current attainment and medical profiles.
  • Lesson plan/cover lesson plan. I highly recommend the 5 minute lesson plan by @TeacherToolkit which can be adapted for this purpose:
copyright @TeacherToolkit

copyright @TeacherToolkit

I have also created a less visually inspiring cover lesson proforma, nevertheless still achieving the same outcome; clarity.

Cover Blank

Point of contact; have a nominated person(s) in your faculty/department who will pop their head in to check on standards, class behaviour and more importantly to offer a familiar face of support to what could be in effect, a stranger to the school. This also shows students there is a support network in place and therefore it would be more likely that any potential ‘pulling the wool’ over this member of staff’s eyes may not be a worthwhile route to take.

Resources; Finally, make your resources easy to access and fully available, as insignificant as this may sound, it could be the deal breaker for a supply teacher when under-pressure.

I’d be interested to hear any ideas/anecdotal stories you may have around staff absence and ‘cover’ lessons. We are a work in progress and I’m always looking for new ideas to ensure our students continue to achieve highly.



About garysking

Deputy Headteacher - leader of Teaching & Learning. Change maker and believer in quality first teaching.


5 thoughts on “‘Cover’ lessons….effective learning in your absence?

  1. Encourage supply staff to talk to TAs in the class. They are a valuable resource.

    Posted by Fiona Banham | December 7, 2015, 9:29 pm
  2. Can I have a copy of your Supply Folder for comparison?

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | December 7, 2015, 10:45 pm
  3. Interesting point of view. I’ve been in both situations where we had some colleagues long term absences covered by an eclectic selection of supplies and now being a supply I’m in all sorts of different classes.
    As a supply, a folder you describe is useful to have all info to hand (when you have a moment to read it) but with regards to lesson planning, for short term supply, simpler is better with all the extraneous stuff stripped out. If there is a TA they can help with groupings etc but to be honest, if you arrive with only 20 minutes before the kids then you don’t have the time to read reams and reams of info, you just need to know what you’re doing in 20 minutes. You won’t remember all the individual groupings and SEN children anyway as you won’t even know who the kids are.

    Posted by 1ofthe40 | December 8, 2015, 9:52 pm
  4. Hi Gary,

    Liked your thoughts on this. In my opinion, you can never get a cover lesson as successful as you would teach it.

    First of all, You know the kids. I mean, KNOW the kids. This is crucial to successful learning episodes in lessons.

    Secondly, getting moral high is the key to keeping down staff absences and avoiding high numbers of cover lessons.

    However Gary, I do think that when it is unavoidable, your ideas above sound like they could make a smoother experience for students and cover staff. Good luck!

    Posted by conorheaven | December 9, 2015, 1:04 pm

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