Managing Staff Absence

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How do schools cover for teacher absence?

As part of my leadership role, I line-manage our school’s cover manager and oversee day-to-day cover. In terms of making sure the school is functional each day, this is a critical role within the school; a job that requires a deep understanding of curriculum, staffing and well-being issues, as well as a heightened degree of the needs of students and teachers every day.

Of course, other factors come into play that cannot be scripted, such as seasonal twists, general moods and a requirement to ‘have your ear to the ground’ in terms of staff well-being.

Last week, due to various circumstances, it was my turn to sit in the hot-seat. This post – written in chronological order – describes the work required and the thinking-process behind deploying staff around a large secondary school in one day. In this post, I describe the process for managing cover, long-before all staff are on-site.

When things go wrong …

When things go wrong, people notice. The indication of a well-organised school, is that when issues (such as cover) are resolved behind the scenes, the impact on staff and students in the classroom is unnoticed.

To add to this responsibility from a strategical point of view, the member of staff who oversees and organises cover must also be aware of local and national guidance on managing cover, school policies and safeguarding procedures when placing qualified and non-qualified staff into classrooms and /or deploying temporary supply staff to various lessons throughout the school.

Why? Because despite anyone’s best intentions, policies and procedures may be in place to help organise and protect, but short-term cover will always be required. That is, absences will always need to be covered and 99% of this will be unknown. No matter what you do, much cannot be resolved until at least 7.30 – 8.00am each morning.

The job of cover manager is never complete, nor perfect, but when dealing with an area of such need, ‘receiving a cover’ can make any humble and hard-working member of staff lose the will to live. Balancing supply versus demand, and the needs of students versus the expertise of any given adult (available at a given time), is a delicate operation.

shutterstock_336196451 Close up on a file tab with the word employees plus a note with the text sick leaves, blur effect at the background. Concept image for illustration of sick leave entitlement.

Image: Shutterstock

How to organise cover:

It is critical that an oversight of planned cover needs is considered the week ahead (as a minimum). Issues to consider will range from long-term sickness, occupational health arrangements (e.g. late starts), requests for cover so that teaching staff can support with exams, revision and conduct meetings and observations. The list here is endless!

In terms of the night before, the best piece of advice is to have ‘known absences’ plugged into SIMS before the day starts.


Arrive at work and login to the school network. Check the school voicemail (cover line) to see if there are any ‘early morning’ calls. Sometimes the rare emergency means that staff call before the allotted time the phone is ‘looked after’. To ensure there is a voice at the end of the phone, our school policy is that all staff call the ‘cover line’ between 7.00 – 7.30am. This ensures all messages are resolved and communicated with staff who are on the receiving end of ‘planning cover’ for absent colleagues and that the correct message are relayed.

From this time onwards, I have logged into SIMS to organise absences and allocate cover, as well as three other platforms to cross-reference possible absences.

  • Online system for planned absences, for example cover protection, requests for cover, interviews, annual leave (for support staff) and leave of absence for weddings/funerals/special circumstances. We ask for at least 48 hours notice.
  • Blue Sky Education for professional development requests. We hope to reduce this additional (login) piece of software and integrate this into the software used above. We ask for at least 5 days notice.
  • Evolve for school journeys and educational visits. We ask for a minimum of 6 week’s notice for safeguarding.

Of course, each portal is checked once a week and the day before, but it is helpful to have these sources of information open and to hand when resolving questions/issues.


From 7.00am, the phone is live and open for all types of absences and cover. For example, staff sickness, traffic and childcare issues and/or calling supply agencies to book in cover staff. Decisions need to be made before 7.30am before agencies start to deploy their own staff to schools all over the region.


Once the cover line has closed, decisions can start to be made. Who will cover what lesson and where around the school? How many supply teachers do we need? Which agency shall we call? What specialism is required? Who can cover? The answers to all of these questions will vary from school to school and your own school policies and procedures will have already made much of the countless decisions for you.

At this time, any cover manager will hope to be resolving more complicated issues and placing the right/best people in front of students. This simple sentence does not justify the detail and the ‘enth degree of thought required in making a series of decisions.

Time is also critical and any unplanned absence or disruption to this person working at this time, can impact elsewhere.


From 8.00am, cover information is made public. This means the information is communicated with agencies, departments and individuals. As part of our move to Google, a single document owned by myself and our cover manager is used to ‘share information’ with the rest of the school community. This is automatically published on our intranet hub and informs supply agencies and teaching staff throughout the day. It is the one source of information that all staff must check daily. Information is automatically published onto the SIMS homepage for applicable staff.

Here is a (anonymous and fabricated) example of staff absences for one day.

Managing Cover Staff Absences

n.b. pre-planned on the left and unplanned on the right-hand side.

After the cover schedule is published (see below), cover booklets, student class-lists and student photographs are printed and prepared for visiting teachers.

Managing Cover Staff Absences

Where a member of our own staff has been allocated a cover lesson, this is agreed for staff under-allocation and/or ‘rarely cover’ which is of course in line with union guidance. Personally, in all of the schools I have worked with, this is one school where cover is indeed, rare.


At this point, one needs to sit and wait …

Why? Because any unforeseen circumstances need to be resolved immediately if students do not have an adult in front of them. It’s rare, but it does happen when information is not communicated. The best advice I can give here, is to be at your desk, near a phone and a PC so that immediate cover issues can be rectified. If one needs to go to the school office to meet and greet a supply teacher, or visit a class without a teacher and step in, take a walkie-talkie or mobile phone with you. The likelihood is that you will be needed …


Once lessons are in full flow, on a good day the radio is quiet and a member of staff walks around the school, visiting every cover lesson. Supply teachers are asked for feedback at the end of the day and students are rewarded and sanctioned just like in any other lesson.

Throughout the morning, cover issues typically go via line-managers before they reach myself or the cover supervisor. For example, staff feeling unwell or have emergencies in which they need to go home.

In all cases, where staff have unexpected events, we insist that no member of staff has to set cover. It is dealt with by supporting staff around them.

On a bad day, unidentified cover issues may arise. The difficulty here, is that cover decisions have already been made and staff have been deployed around the school and from supply agencies.

Last resorts tend to be based on the following ascending priorities:

  1. Make the decision to call an agency based on needs. The costs versus time of day are also a factor.
  2. As an immediate port of call, a member of senior team tends to step in until the cover issue is resolved. This can be anything from 5-30 minutes.
  3. Behind the scenes, the cover manager will be searching school timetables to find ‘what staff are under-allocation’ who could be used as a next priority. This is always a last resort and often supply staff with the occasional non-contact time can be used. We have several options available, including our own cover supervisors which offer a great amount of flexibility and keep unnecessary cover anyway from our teaching staff.
  4. If no other options are available, staff are be deployed for ‘rarely-cover’.


At break-time, it is advisable to head back to the office to check the cover phone-line to see if there are any late phone-calls or issues arising from the morning. This is also a useful port of call – in terms of a location – for all staff to be able to find you. Often conversations can include: inappropriate cover work; staff concerns; potential absences etc.


During the middle of lunch-time when the lunch queue has dissolved, I head back to the office again for a quick check on the cover phone-line to see if there are any late phone-calls or issues arising for the afternoon. For example, a staff member could be unwell and has needed to go home. Occasionally, there is a rare email to clarify any cover needs for the day, or for the following day. If this is the case, cover decisions need to be made.

It is vital that you look at the next day and plan cover needs the day before, resolving any absences in advance so the following morning can be used for unplanned events.

Week be week, between the cover manager and myself, we are viewing three other (online) portals for leave of absence requests before any work can be completed within SIMS. It is essential that all requests are cross-referenced against line-manager approval, school priorities and school policies, as well as the school calendar.

the cycle repeats

It’s a tough job, but one I enjoy. On a bad day, it can consume all your plans and projects.


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2 thoughts on “Managing Staff Absence

  1. I have experienced the problems of supply from managing the school diary and cover, to being a supply teacher with an agency.

    My spell of managing cover was in the old steam days, no computer, no mobiles. The one thing I loved about it was an sense of completion. Unlike learning, which is an ongoing process, cover had to be, and was, done there and then. I had a sense of achievement every day.

    Now I see it from the other side.
    The worst aspects of supply are the zero hours contract and the uncertainty waiting every morning to see if you are allocated.
    I genuinely enjoy the variety of work, schools do not seem to value versatility, demanding specialisms. No room for the renaissance man.
    Also one has more experience of schools, the worst I experienced was a “Good” school where no work was set, pupils were apalling, staff largely unsupportive and no work set. I was treated as an outsider and totally left on my own. The best schools were “Inadequate” where I was looked after, work set and treated like a human being. The pupils were well behaved and any miscreants were dealt with immediately by the school.

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