Following the return of some children to schools in June, reviewing our plans for the return of all year groups in September is challenging. School leaders and governors are spending hours pouring over changing guidance and problem solving through the intricate challenges of social distancing in a school environment.

How do we manage social distancing in class? How will we manage hand washing? What about masks? How can we manage lunch time and catering? We’re all learning as we go along. As more children return, the unexpected and unplanned for will inevitably require us to think again.

One more challenge will be staff scheduling. Not all teachers who are needed back in school will be able to make it. Some may have concerns about the health of their own children or family members, others might make it to work at first but then have to self-isolate if they start displaying symptoms of Covid-19. Larger schools may find it easier to cover, but some smaller schools will find it very challenging.

A further staffing challenge will result from the students’ knowledge gaps when they return. Some students will have had the resources and support to engage well with learning during the lockdown. The time away from school has already lasted longer than the summer holidays. Headteachers are already reporting regression in some younger children’s language development. Some students will need significant support to get back on pace with their peers. In an effort to narrow the knowledge gaps within classes additional intervention groups and 1-1 support will be needed, requiring more staff than usual.

Good, reliable supply teachers are a natural resource for schools to turn to when addressing these staffing challenges and to build resilience into their scheduling at such a sensitive time. Whether you need an experienced teacher to replace a staff member or someone with specific subject knowledge to boost intervention quality, a good reliable supply teacher can provide great support for the children and school.

Relying on supply teaching presents a number of challenges in the best of times, and there are some specific challenges school leaders can usefully consider in the current situation.

Caring responsibilities or having to self-isolate due to symptoms may mean there are fewer supply teachers available than usual. Additionally, the staffing challenges described above are likely to affect many schools, so demand for supply teachers is likely to be high, affecting availability even further. Low availability always raises questions about quality - how experienced are they and how right will they be for my school?

If you find yourself needing to book a supply teacher you’ve never met before, what are the options available to you to learn about their experience before they arrive at your school? This becomes especially important if your goal is for them to lead intervention groups.

So, with all these challenges, how can booking supply teachers be successful?

1. Book in advance

As supply teachers often rely on same-day or one-day-prior bookings, booking them 1-2 weeks in advance, if possible, gives you a much better choice. In normal times, schools understandably try to avoid the additional cost of booking supply teachers and then often only book them as a last resort. With only a few weeks left till the end of the school year, and a lot of the supply budget unused due to the lockdown, schools could shift this approach and prioritise getting their choice of supply teachers by booking them in advance.

2. Read the teacher’s CV

Supply agencies are often like a ‘lucky dip’, you ask for a teacher for a specific year group or subject, get confirmation and hope for the best. Could you raise the bar and look for specific experience to more effectively meet the needs of the children and school? What if you have no time for that? This is a problem if you’re scrambling last-minute and your agency is going to take time sending you CVs. If you’re booking in advance or using an online platform like Zen Educate, the CVs of all the available teachers are already there for you to see, as well as reviews from other schools that have booked them in the past.

3. Group resources

The challenge you’re trying to solve is staff shortage. The added complexity in solving it is that you might still be unsure about which subject areas you need to cover and when. Some of the other schools in your area will be in the same position, so why not reduce your uncertainty by collaborating with them?

As a group, you can book a teacher in advance for a specific date and then provide the specific subject and location the evening prior to the booking. This way you get your choice of teacher and reduce the risks you might perceive with making bookings in advance. You could talk with your Account Manager at Zen Educate about which schools you would like to collaborate with on this.

There will be many challenges in the upcoming weeks, and staff scheduling will be one of them. Taking advantage of the transparency of availability and teaching experience that Zen Educate offers is one of the ways schools can change their approach to booking supply teachers during to guarantee better availability and higher quality.

If you’d like to know more you can contact us on 020 3870 4413. We can help plan out potential staffing needs and find the solutions that will work for you.

Zen Educate is an ethical alternative to traditional supply agencies currently working in London, Manchester and Birmingham. They are a Certified Social Enterprise and Crown Commercial Services Supplier.