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Spending on substitute teachers in Northern Ireland tops £100m, up 40% in past three years

Pandemic-driven staff shortages among reasons for rise, says DoE


Extra support: Substitute teachers chiefly cover staff absence

Extra support: Substitute teachers chiefly cover staff absence

Extra support: Substitute teachers chiefly cover staff absence

The amount spent on substitute teachers in Northern Ireland has increased by almost 40% in the past three years.

The bill in the last financial year topped £100m, figures show.

It comes amid a teacher shortage here and after some staff took strike action in a dispute over pay.

During the 2019/20 financial year, £72.1m was spent on substitute teachers for grant-aid schools, which most schools in Northern Ireland are.

In the 2021/22 financial year, the cost increased to £100.6m, an increase of 39.4%.

Earlier this year, to relieve some of the pressure on teachers due to staff shortages, the Department of Education gave head teachers permission to reassign substitute teachers who have been delivering the Engage programme to classroom duties.

The Engage programme was set up to limit any long-term, negative impact of Covid on pupils by supporting students’ learning on their return to the school by providing one-to-one or small-group teaching.

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SDLP Education Spokesperson Daniel McCrossan said the near £30m increase in spending should be examined.

“Substitute teachers play a vital role in terms of covering for absence and illness, often at short notice, and allowing students to continue their education when unforeseen circumstances arise, but we must ensure this money is spent in the most appropriate way, especially given the significant financial pressures our school community faces,” he said.

“Throughout the pandemic I highlighted the need to act to protect pupils and staff and all too often this fell on deaf ears. I also fought to ensure that support was introduced to help substitute teachers during this difficult period.”

Mr McCrossan said schools should not be able to employ substitute teachers indefinitely, and, if there is a vacancy, a full-time appointment should be made.

The General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (GTCNI) said several factors may be contributing to the increased costs or use of substitute teachers.

They said this situation may not necessarily be driven by staff shortages or insufficient capacity.

Other factors, the GTCNI said, include levels of staff absences — as for two years schools were impacted by the pandemic — and problems recruiting staff.

The GCTNI said individual schools can decide how to structure their organisation and deploy their budget, while pay awards may also be a factor.

During the period in question there was a significant pay award made to teachers, particularly in 2021/22, which included back pay to 2019/20.

The Department of Education said it is the responsibility of each board of governors and each school leadership team to make decisions about when to engage substitute teachers.

“The department fully recognises the increase in substitute teacher costs over the last two years,” it said.

“This was due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in an increase in demand for substitute teachers to cover staff shortages, due to sick absence, and also to facilitate the Engage programme in schools.

“The aim was to try to keep schools safe for children and staff, prioritise and support children’s education as they returned to school, and that any impact on overall transmission of Covid was as low as possible.”

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