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HLTAs and cover supervisors

Advice for higher level teaching assistants 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 2023 survey of support staff members, 75% 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 the lesson themselves.

The workload agreement 

The primary aim of the 2003 workload agreement was to tackle the excessive burden faced by teachers, to eliminate all non-teaching functions from their daily workload. The agreement established two new support staff roles: higher level teaching assistant (HLTA) and cover supervisor. 

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 and monitoring pupils and assessing, recording and reporting on pupil’s achievement, progress and development.” 

Specified work is defined as:

  • Planning and preparing lessons and courses for individual pupils, groups and whole classes
  • Delivering lessons to pupils including delivery via distance learning or computer aided techniques
  • Assessing the development, progress and attainment of pupils
  • Reporting on the development, progress and attainment of pupils

The teacher will exercise their professional judgement, based on what is best for pupils, as to whether it is more appropriate for them or an HLTA to carry out particular ‘specified work’. This will depend on the level to which the professional judgment and expertise of a teacher is required, e.g.

 “Delivering lessons to pupils” could include anything from an ‘A’ level class in Further Maths to practising times tables. A higher level of professional expertise and judgment of a teacher is required in the former whilst the latter could be delegated to an HLTA of sufficient competence

“Assessing the development, progress and attainment of pupils” could include anything from the formal assessment of coursework to marking and collating scores from a multiple-choice test. The former is a more complex and demanding task that requires the skills of a teacher, whilst the latter could be delegated to an HLTA.

The responsibility for teaching, learning and outcomes remains with the teacher and, ultimately, the Head:

Qualified teachers make the leading contribution to teaching and learning, reflecting their training and experience. Each class/group for timetabled core and foundation subjects must be assigned a qualified teacher to teach them (subject to the existing unqualified teacher provisions). Accountability for the overall learning outcomes of a particular pupil must rest with that pupil’s qualified classroom/subject teacher.

(Workload Agreement, Paragraph 61, first indent, page 12)

Yes, they can, but only on a short-term basis.

Cover supervisors and high level teaching assistants are for short-term absences only ….. they should not be used as the remedy for the medium or long term absence of a qualified teacher.”

(Workload Agreement, Paragraph 33, last indent, page 8)

NEU advice is that HLTAs should not be used to cover whole classes for more than five consecutive days in a secondary school, and no more than three consecutive days in a primary setting.

The use of HLTAs to undertake ‘specified work’ is not intended to worsen pupil teacher ratios but improve them so in a situation where support is normally present the level of support should not be reduced. So if the HLTA or another TA is normally present in the classroom when the teacher is present, there should be additional support for the HLTA when the teacher is not present.

Yes. HLTAs who undertake specified work should have an appropriate percentage of paid time within their contracted hours set aside to enable them to plan and prepare for their own role in lessons and liaise with their class teacher/s.

Sometimes TAs with HLTA status are issued with split contracts, whereby they are deployed to do higher level work for part of the week and paid a higher rate for this, but are then deployed for the rest of the week as a general TA at a lower level of pay.

Such practices are based on the assumption that HLTA work only relates to working with a whole class. However, if a TA has the skills and knowledge to take a whole class they clearly have a range of skills that can also be used in a variety of other settings supporting the work of teachers.

WAMG advice on this states that casual arrangements – which give to TAs who meet the HLTA standards enhanced pay only for those hours when they are deployed with whole classes – are not in line with the aims of workforce reform and the principles of the National Agreement. Therefore, schools should consider whether they have a broader range of work that would enable them to maximise their use of an HLTA’s skills or, indeed, whether these resources could be used more widely in collaboration with other schools.

In a four-level grading system, HLTAs should be paid at Level 4 i.e. the highest support staff grade.

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:

  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)

“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.”

“Head teachers will use their professional judgment in determining what should be regarded as ‘short-term’ absence. There will be a number of considerations which the head teacher will need to take into account when deciding whether cover supervision is appropriate or not:

  • The extent to which the 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 a term.

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."

(Both statements taken from WAMG Supplementary Guidance)

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).

Where short-term absences are to be covered using Cover Supervisors, this will be carried out by staff appointed to a permanent post as Cover Supervisor, with a specific job description and salary grading.

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.

The head teacher needs to ensure that Cover Supervisors have been appropriately trained, particularly in pupil behaviour management. Such training is essential if those responsible for cover supervision are to make a real contribution to reducing the burdens on teachers. (See STPCD, paragraph 87, page 187, 2012 edition)

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).

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).

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

In particular, schools will need to clarify the “short-term” cover issue when drawing up their cover and PPA policies.

If you are an HLTA, Cover Supervisor, Teaching Assistant or Learning Support Assistant, and 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.

Need advice? Your first point of contact for advice and support is your workplace rep. The NEU website also has an extensive  advice section, with a wealth of guidance covering the issues our members face at work. Alternatively contact AdviceLine

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