Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 27 of Session 2002-03, dated 27 June 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that there was an urgent need to address the complacency which existed in the management of teacher substitution and sickness absence in Northern Ireland. In issuing a report on a Northern Ireland Department he said that he was conscious that his Committee was temporarily filling the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly's Public Accounts Committee. He added that while his Committee was happy to carry out this role and consider topics such as this from Northern Ireland, he would like to see accountability issues return to the Assembly soon.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 27th Report of this Session, which examined how substitute teachers are managed when they provide cover and how effectively the attendance of permanent teachers is handled. In 2000-01, substitution cover cost £38 million and had risen by 29% since 1996-97.

The Committee's central concern about the use of substitution cover is how such teaching will affect the quality of pupils' education. In view of this, the Committee found it surprising that the Department's School Inspectorate had not undertaken an evaluation of the management and effectiveness of substitute teaching. The Committee considered that the lack of attention to these issues could compromise the quality of experience which pupils have in the classroom. The Inspectorate intends to carry out a review of substitute teaching during the 2003-04 school year and the Committee wishes to be kept informed of the outcome of this exercise.

The Committee is disturbed that the Department's failure to live up to undertakings given to its predecessors in 1992 may have led to substantial resources being unnecessarily committed. Given the high level of redundancies in recent years, a requirement that retraining and redeployment of teachers should always be considered before redundancy decisions are finalised, appears to have been largely ignored. It has been estimated, using what the Committee regards as conservative assumptions, that the establishment of a redeployment "pool" of teachers instead of approving their redundancies could have yielded savings in the order of £3.6 million in 1999-00. In addition to this, despite an assurance that the re-employment of prematurely retired teachers would be limited to exceptional cases, the practice was found to have actually increased during the same four-year period.           

On the issue of sickness leave, the report makes the point that the health record of teachers can have an important influence on the behaviour and performance of children. The reasons for this range from the ability of teachers to provide positive role models for their pupils to the potentially serious impact on a child's education, if continuity in teaching and learning is broken. Teachers in Northern Ireland took on average 10 working days sickness absence in 2000-01, ranging from 6.8 working days' to 14.7 across regions and school sectors. This compares with an average sickness absence rate of 6 days per teacher in England. Strategies that have a clear impact on reducing teacher absences have the potential to save millions of pounds. For instance, if sickness absence in Northern Ireland was reduced to the equivalent levels in Great Britain, pro rata savings on substitute teachers would be approximately £4 million, while the teaching and learning benefits of £6 million worth of permanent teachers' time would not be lost.

Mr Leigh said today

"I am aware of the excellent examination results in many Northern Ireland schools and I congratulate them on their achievements. However, with pupils in some schools spending 10% of their school year being taught by substitute teachers and sickness absence running at alarmingly high levels it is essential that these issues are treated as key management priorities to ensure continuity in the quality of education received by all pupils." 

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