– A critical analysis of supply teaching agencies and proactive steps forwards.
“Sometimes I think candour is the only kindness”Karen Allen
In this article I will be drawing upon the most recent article on supply teachers by Patrick Roach, General secretary, NASUWT. I will also be assessing several case studies of poor practice by supply agencies as well as proactive steps forward.
As schools reopen and a sense of ‘normality’ begins to ensue, even with a global pandemic, no one can help if staff are absent. Many schools have cover supervisors but other rely on supply teachers to come in, cover lessons and hold the fort. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that the most vulnerable remain disadvantaged, maligned and pushed further into deprivation. When Health Secretary, Matt Hancock explicitly claimed that supply teachers could spread coronavirus, I knew what he was getting at. Not like, say, a lack of testing or his own inadequacies should be considered. Everyone from the experts to refugees have been scapegoated and supply teachers are vulnerable and unrepresented. Daily infections rising and the death toll never really falling, coupled with a lack of testing and blame game tactics, I truly believe we need to have a difficult conversation about supply teachers.
The education systems precariat
What is the precariat?
If we use the Collins dictionary definition of the term ‘precariat’ we have something along the lines of this: ‘the class of people in society who lack a reliable long-term source of income, such as permanent employment’. This is a broad definition and can include people from all walks of life from those working in retail to pretty much everyone who has a zero-hours contract. As a supply teacher, we are essentially zero-hour contract agency workers.
Don’t get me wrong, the supply teaching industry is big business. The article by Roach highlights the almost conglomerate-esque nature of the supply staff industry. As of 2018/19, over £550 million was spent on supply staff by maintained schools. As schools opt for a costly way to cover absent staff, our supply teachers are particularly vulnerable. Supply work is seasonal and irregular. The employment benefits of contributions to pensions, sick pay and holiday pay don’t exist when you are on supply. The reason why many people, including myself are on supply. I wanted a greater work-life balance and to care for an elderly family member. Others have care responsibilities, many have had bad experiences in education and some are looking for more flexibility.
There is a plethora of misconceptions about supply staff. Many are considered as ‘mercenaries’ or unwilling to teach fulltime. I have even heard the term ‘snowflake’ being used to describe supply teachers. The full comment was “they are all snowflakes who want to live off furlough”. A. going into a school, not knowing anyone let alone what you are teaching takes incredible resilience, B. many supply agencies did not furlough their staff. Some supply teachers have been technically unemployed since March and thus struggling to make ends meet. The notion of ‘mercenary’ leaves me beyond bemused as many supply teachers are subject specialists, their expertise cannot be denied and they don’t dictate their rates of pay. They are paid their worth and number of agencies that are unwilling to pay the correct rates is absolutely appalling. No matter what, arriving at a classroom with worksheets that are not differentiated, facing often hostile audiences and not knowing where the toilets are, supply is a tough gig. I have previously written about life on supply in a blog titled, Life on Mars. The pandemic has changed so much but the precarious nature of supply work and often exploitative nature of agencies will always be a consistent theme.
Sydney and Mark
Sydney is an NQT and has struggled to secure a role to complete her induction year. She gained her QTS and after a summer of applications falling on deaf ears, she signed up to a supply agency. A young single mum of two, she is enthusiastic and spent the whole summer completing CPD and webinars to improve her classroom practice. Sydney is someone ANY school would be lucky to have. September arrives and she has her phone ready and bag packed full of resources. Doe-eyed, goodwilled and so excited about being in the classroom again, she will go anywhere for work and her agency applaud her eagerness to teach. The phone rings and Sydney makes a 40min journey across London to her school and admittedly loves her first few days. After being left out the loop with her pay, she begins to query this with her agency who have shockingly paid her just £60 a day. After accounting for fuel, her weekly salary is a tad over £200. A conversation or two over social media, she finds out her agency are making almost 50% of how much they charge the school. Sydney is like many NQTs and young teachers on supply; unwilling to rock the boat but also being underpaid and overworked by agencies that know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I don’t know pay scales that well but using the NASWUT guidelines, which are available on their website (I will leave a link), inner London area, an NQT is on M1 (£30,480). That is the day rate of £156.31. A lack of national guidelines on supply rates means teachers like Sydney are heartbreakingly relying on foodbanks and doing working odd jobs at the weekend to make ends meet. This is a qualified teacher!
Mark is an experienced teacher who left fulltime teaching due to poor health. He held several roles in his career including deputy head teacher. After a battle with a life threatening illness, Mark signed up to a supply agency and wanted to get back to what he loved – teaching English. He was on the upper pay scale (UPS) and many schools said they could not afford him. September arrived and just like many people who were out of work, the bills were piling up. Mark contacted his agency but stood firm on his day rate (£130 which was significantly lower than what he was entitled to). His agency continued to ask him to lower his demands to the point where they cut off all communication from him. In such times, his private tuition business was drying up and desperation kicked in. Mark completed several days of supply for £80 a day. He is in the COVID risk category, petrified of falling unwell again and with no family living close by, Mark is forced to accept the work his agency provide. This is an experienced teacher with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Mark should be cherished and valued. His agency should be doing all they can to retain in and provide him work that matches his skills and expertise, and a salary that matches also.
How is this being allowed to happen? Why are teachers like Sydney and Mark at the mercy of their agencies? How long will this carry on?
We are at a time of a teacher retention and recruitment crisis. In 2019, over 39,000 teachers left teaching (DfE, 2019). The global pandemic has revealed the disconnect between policymakers and teachers in a profound way. As teachers battle new protocols, ‘social distancing’ and enter uncharted terrain, what be done to support supply teachers? I have three non-exhaustive practical ideas which are idealistic and holistic but also very feasible.
Supply teaching branch for teaching unions – The NEU and NASUWT are our two leading teaching unions and they do aim to incorporate supply staff into their frameworks. Life on supply is sporadic and many of us don’t know when our next pay day will be. Personal expenses aside, paying for union membership is also an expense. When you are budgeting, hopping from one school to the next and work is so insecure, even the thought of paying union membership can fill you with dread. I am proposing that teaching unions reduce prices for supply staff but still offer them their full services. People join unions as a safety net and with supply, there is no real guaranteed income or place to gain support. Many teachers are unaware of their rights as supply teachers. The fact that they should be able to negotiate how many days they want to work or even their rates. Who is holding these supply agencies accountable? Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible agencies and it is implausible to paint them all with one brush. However, for the malpractice, exploitation and often even guilt tripping, these agencies need to be held accountable. Union membership should be at a reduced price for supply staff and dare I even say, free for some of our most vulnerable and at risk teachers.
Universal and nationwide rates – This will allow schools to budget for supply and there is a greater sense of accountability over budgets. It may go against the free market neo-liberal veneer where state intervention in economic exchanges must be kept at a limit. However, paying someone a wage they can live on and one that matches their human capital, surely that is also a neo-liberal ideal? A universal yardstick of rates would ensure teachers are adequately rewarded based on their knowledge, skills and experience. NASWUT have been calling for this for some time now and it does require state intervention to make it happen. The horror stories we hear of feral behaviour, poorly planned lessons and challenging schools. It takes a brave soul to take on these roles and even if it is for the day. A universal and nationwide rate for supply teachers will also prevent schools being exploited by agencies who charge extortionate rates with little or no regard to those schools budgets and finances. Again, the idea of asking for how much you are entitled to and qualified to earn does not make you a ‘mercenary’ at all. It is a fair reflection of expertise and career positions. I urge every supply teacher to stand firm and negotiate.
Courtesy and candour – At the school level, teachers themselves can make an enormous difference to the experience of supply teachers. Life on supply is tough and many of us are rarely in the same school for the entire academic year. Before anyone judges a supply teacher, be wary of their personal circumstances as I can assure you, doing supply, albeit a ‘choice’ for many of us, it is a ‘choice’ out of a few number of real choices. I have worked in schools where staff won’t even acknowledge your existence and are unwilling to even give directions. Other schools, teachers have made teas and coffees for supply and really been supportive and helpful. It is cliched but are all in this together! If you are a teacher, point the supply staff in the right way, smile and be warm and friendly. They are guests and we are often judged on how we treat our guests. I still recall a mass brawl taking place in a classroom where a supply teacher was left totally isolated. Senior leaders were quick to react, took decisive action and offered that supply teacher a free lunch. By the next term, that same supply teacher was hired and today they are prospering! Kindness, courtesy and candour can make such a difference. We are stronger together.
These are unprecedented times for us all. Schools begin to reopen, infections are rising and no one at governmental level seems to have a clue. In the era of anti-expert, us teachers are the experts of our profession. As a community, we are better united and this includes support staff and supply teachers. I urge schools to be wary of exploitative practices. I urge teaching unions to carry on fighting for greater equity for our supply teachers. I urge teachers to be welcoming and supportive toward supply staff. Finally, I urge supply teachers to be firm with their demands, know their rights and to only go in if YOU feel ready.
Ultimately, supply teachers are an asset and a resource to every school. Their expertise, knowledge and experience whether they are an NQT or Head, they should be valued and respected by all. We need to place a protective ring around supply teachers.
Thank you for reading.