SECONDARY schools across the St Austell and Fowey area spent more than £320,000 on agency staff to cover teachers' absences in the past academic year, the Cornish Guardian has learnt.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that nearly a third of a million pounds was spent in total by four schools – Poltair, Penrice Academy, Brannel School and Fowey Community College – in 2011-12.
Poltair's spend was the highest at £125,996, Penrice £82,600, Brannel spent £71,961 and Fowey forked out £48,468.
Kathy Wallis, the National Association Of Schoolmasters And Union Of Women Teachers (NASUWT) national executive for Cornwall, said changes imposed by government were adding to teachers' stress, causing more to be away from the classroom and putting further pressure on school budgets.
Poltair head teacher Stephen Tong said its expenditure on agency staff in 2011-12 included a "significant outlay for a number of unforeseen long-term illnesses. In support of the members of staff, their colleagues, and to ensure that the learners continue to receive a high-quality level of provision, we engaged the services of high-quality, well-qualified teachers through our close relationship with local teaching agencies."
Many schools in Cornwall use a recognised teaching agency – such as Concorde – to provide cover.
Ms Wallis added: "By bringing in supply teachers to cover teachers on long-term sickness, they are not only supporting their staff but they are also supporting their students. And if you get the same supply teachers in, you are giving continuation and security to the students' learning."
Mr Tong said some schools use private arrangements with supply teachers, rather than using agencies, to keep their budget down and others will use additional teachers employed directly by the school to cover lessons.
Of 17 secondary schools who provided figures for their spend on agency staff, the average came in at £48,965.
Poltair said it does not employ any temporary cover supervisors – who can be in-house staff but are not generally fully qualified teachers – to cover lessons, but has two occasional private arrangements with other qualified teachers.
Fowey Community College said it employs one cover supervisor and uses a couple of former teachers on a private basis.
Penrice said it does not employ anyone on a private basis, but it does have contracted cover supervisors.
Penrice said its contracted cover supervisors earn between £15,960 and £19,222, dependent on qualification and length of service, but the other schools did not wish to disclose this information.
Brannel declined to provide this newspaper with a breakdown of its cover provision.
The Cornish Guardian also asked all schools for their total teaching staff bill but they declined to provide this information.
"The principle behind using these individuals is that they are familiar faces to students and know the school system. This helps with efficiency for us and continuity for students," said John Perry, Fowey Community College head teacher.
"We are very lucky with our teaching staff as they aren't often poorly or away from school.
"But when something like a vomiting bug hits, or a virus, [the agency spend] can rise suddenly and unpredictably. Recently a vomiting bug has hit the local community, so naturally, spend is now up for a few weeks. It's impossible to average this out when you're dealing with something like sickness.
"It's important to remember that all schools work as efficiently as they can to ensure money gets spent on students where it's needed."
Ms Wallis said schools are facing two main problems: the fact Cornwall is one of the lowest funded local authorities in the UK, and that small high schools have the same exigencies of budget as larger schools, but have a smaller budget.
In 2003, she added, the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document, which academies and free schools can opt out of, specified that using teachers for cover is not a good use of their time, which puts pressure on head teachers to bring in agency staff.
"In the last year or two the figures of teachers being off with stress, not just in Cornwall but nationally, is rising hugely. This is because of all the changes coming in and we are not being listened to and are constantly being told we are rubbish, despite the fact the UK comes sixth in the world in the international education table," she said. "This Government has not been looking after teachers."