NEU advice giving a brief synopsis of the advent of the Workload Agreement, and the ‘dos and don’ts’ for HLTAs and cover supervisors.

For a whole variety of reasons, but normally because of budget constraints, schools are increasingly using support staff as de facto teachers. Indeed, some schools have been found to use TAs and even non classroom-based support staff to stand in for absent teachers. 

The evidence is stark: in our 2019 survey of support staff members, 76% of members who undertake cover supervision reported no difference in criteria between their duties and those of a supply teacher. Furthermore, 73% of those acting as cover supervisors said it is not possible to supervise a class in their school without delivering a lesson themselves. 

What is the Workload Agreement? 

The agreement was signed in 2003 by the then Labour Government and most of the major national teachers’ and general workers’ unions. Its primary aim was to tackle the excessive burden faced by teachers, to eliminate all ‘non-teaching’ functions from their daily workload. To achieve this end, the agreement established two new support staff roles: HLTA and cover supervisor.  At national level, the Government established the Workload Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG), with the task of ensuring compliance with the terms of the agreement

What is an HLTA? 

The agreed definition of an HLTA is: 

“To complement the professional work of teachers by taking responsibility for agreed learning activities under an agreed system of supervision. This may involve planning, preparing and delivering learning activities for individuals/groups or short term for whole classes …” (Level 4 Supporting and Delivering Learning Model Job Profile -Preamble

But this definition can and is undermined in the following ways: 

  • by using HLTAs predominantly or exclusively to cover PPA time (“Effective deployment of HLTAs to help raise standards” (WAMG note 17) 
  • by loosely interpreting the phrase ‘short term’ to mean anything up to a whole term or even longer 
  • by expecting HLTAs to plan, prepare and deliver lessons to whole classes – in other words, to teach. 

Staff do not need to have secured HLTA accredited status in order to be appointed to an HLTA vacancy: “Headteachers should have regard to the national HLTA professional standards in considering whether a member of support staff has the necessary skills and expertise to undertake an HLTA role even though they may not yet have achieved HLTA status.” (WAMG guidance on higher level teaching assistant roles for school support staff – our emphasis). 

What is cover supervision? 

The agreed definition of cover supervision is: 

“Cover supervision occurs when no active teaching is taking place and involves the supervision of pre-set learning activities in the absence of a teacher.” 

Cover supervision is defined as: 

  1. supervising work that has been set in accordance with the school policy 
  2. managing the behaviour of pupils whilst they are undertaking this work to ensure a constructive environment 
  3. responding to any questions from pupils about process and procedures 
  4. dealing with any immediate problems or emergencies according to the school’s policies and procedures 
  5. collecting any completed work after the lesson and returning it to the appropriate teacher 
  6. reporting back as appropriate using the school’s agreed referral procedures on the behaviour of pupils during the class, and any issues arising.

(WAMG Guidance for Schools on Cover Supervision) 

But as with HLTAs, this narrow and precise definition of the role of cover supervisor is too often breached. For example, schools continue to use cover supervisors to fill in for teachers taking PPA time, and for periods longer than the precise definition of ‘short term’ laid down by WAMG. 

How can abuses of the Workload Agreement be tackled? 

The task of policing the implementation of the letter and spirit of the Workload Agreement was made harder in 2010, when the coalition Government moved away from the concept of ‘social partnership’ with the unions, and abolished the national WAMG. However, the Workload Agreement itself is extant, and all parties to it – schools, employers and unions – are bound by its terms. 

In particular, individual schools have a clear responsibility to ensure that support staff are not exploited: “Schools should review their individual cover policies to ensure that these activities are only undertaken by  those members of staff with appropriate levels of skills, status and experience and that any necessary training is provided.” 

“It is vital that schools have distinct and documented cover and PPA policies in place that define the roles and responsibilities of support staff members. These policies need to be communicated to and understood by all school staff. If members of support staff are required to deliver specified work, the school will also need to have in place a written system of supervision.” 

(Both quotes taken from WAMG guidance note 22 – The Appropriate Deployment of Support Staff in Schools) 

If you are made aware of instances where schools are acting in violation of their obligations, or you are an HLTA or cover supervisor who is being exploited in this way, speak to the NEU rep at the school, or if there isn’t one, your local NEU branch secretary, and ask them to take the matter up with the headteacher.  

Cover supervision Q&A 

What does ‘short term’ mean? 

“Cover supervision should only be used for short-term absences. These might be known in advance (for example, where a teacher has a medical appointment or is undergoing professional development) or unexpected (for example, absence due to illness). Longer-term absence – e.g. due to long-term sick or maternity leave should be covered by a teacher.”

“In a setting where a class is predominantly led by one teacher for the majority of the day, it is likely that cover supervision will very quickly become ‘specified work’ and active teaching would be required. In any case, it would clearly be inappropriate in such settings for a class to be ‘supervised’ for more than three consecutive days. On the other hand, where pupils are only timetabled for occasional lessons which are affected by teacher absence, the use of cover supervision over a longer period of time may be appropriate."

When does ‘short term’ end and ‘long term’ begin? 

For classes “predominantly led by one teacher for the majority of the day … it would clearly be inappropriate for a class to be ‘supervised’ for more than three consecutive days.” 

In all other circumstances, NEU advice is that cover supervision should not be used for more than five consecutive days, or over an extended period, one day a week for a half term in a primary school, or one lesson a week for a half term in a secondary school. Any sickness absence longer than five days should be deemed ‘long term’,and covered accordingly. (WAMG supplementary guidance –see also WAMG notes 12 and 13).

What is the headteachers’ role? 

There will be a number of considerations which the headteacher will need to take into account when deciding whether the use of cover supervision is appropriate or not. The key factors are: 

  • the extent to which continuity of learning can be maintained 

  • the length of time a particular group of pupils would be working without a teacher 

  • the proportion of the total curriculum time affected in a specific subject over the course of the term. 

Should cover supervisors be used to cover PPA? 

No. “Schools should be clear that they cannot use staff in cover supervision roles to fill gaps in the timetable created by teacher PPA time.” (WAMG note 13 – see also WAMG notes 17 and 22). In a four-level grading system, HLTAs should be paid at level 4, I.e. the highest support staff grade. 

What is the going rate for the job? 

“The agreed national model job profiles reflect the expectation that staff providing cover supervision would have skills and knowledge at the level or equivalent to NVQ3.” (I.e. level 3 in a four-level system). 

What responsibilities do schools and local authorities have? 

“It is vital that schools have distinct and documented cover and PPA policies in place that define the roles and responsibilities of support staff members. These policies need to be communicated to and understood by all school staff. If members of support staff are required to deliver specified work, the school will also need to have in place a written system of supervision in accordance with the regulations for England and Wales and accompanying guidance.” (WAMG note 22) 

Schools will therefore need to clarify the “short-term” cover issue when drawing up their cover and PPA policies. 

Conclusion 

If you are an HLTA, cover supervisor, teaching assistant or learning support assistant, and if you have concerns about the way your role is being interpreted by your school, speak to your NEU School Rep or Branch Secretary in the first instance. 

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