More than £200m has been spent on substitute teachers in the last three years, it has emerged, prompting concerns that cuts in education could lead to more reliance on temporary staff.
Education Minister Peter Weir, in response to a written Assembly question, revealed that schools spent just under £70m on substitute teachers as cover for permanent staff over the year ending March 2019.
The number is similar to last year and slightly below two years ago, according to the figures released following a written question tabled by SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan.
"I tabled this question as I've genuine concerns about teacher recruitment and school budgets," Mr McCrossan explained. "With school budget cuts across the board recently, schools have been forced to employ substitute teachers instead of permanent ones," the West Tyrone MLA added.
"This means they are not contracted long-term and schools are not committed to long-term to salaries.
"Our school system is suffering severe pressure. I want it funded properly and want to see resources spent properly, and that includes on our teaching staff."
The figures reveal that £69.2m was spent on substitutes for the year ending 2019, compared to £69m the previous year and £73.6m in 2016/17. Those figures are for all schools apart from voluntary grammar.
The amount spent on substitute teachers was 11.47% of the total pay roll of just over £600m over the last financial year. Department of Education figures reveal that a total of 152,000 days were lost through sickness in 2018/19, or 9.5 days on average per teacher.
This is up from 136,000, or 8.4 per teacher, five years ago.
The NASUWT teachers' union has noted that schools are reimbursed for the cost of a substitute teacher up to the M3 pay grade, which is £25,168 a year or £19.92 an hour.
"If a teacher is paid more than this, the school must make up the shortfall. For this reason, some schools attempt to cap substitute teachers' pay at no more than M3," the union said on its website.
Recently, the Department for Education said it needs £427m more next year for special needs education, teachers' pay and school maintenance.