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Bargaining for alternatives to agencies (A2A) for supply educators

A toolkit for NEU branches & districts that contains briefing and support materials for NEU branches and districts which will help you pursue improvements for NEU supply members.



Alternatives to agencies graphic

Alternatives to agencies

A toolkit containing briefing and support materials for NEU branches and districts to help pursue improvements for NEU supply members.

Use the toolkit

The National Education Union (NEU) wants to end the domination of agency employment by promoting and securing alternative and better employment models, including more direct employment by schools and local non-commercial alternatives to agencies for schools seeking supply staff. The materials in this toolkit are intended to help you take actions locally in pursuit of both aims.

The toolkit also includes advice on supporting NEU members who continue to work via agencies, in particular on how you can support members in securing rights to pay parity under the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR).


NEU conference policy commits the union to seek, for all supply members, “an in-house system of democratically accountable, properly rewarded employment” and also calls on the union to support direct employment and agreements with employers which support direct employment.

The union has repeatedly sought the introduction at national level of alternative models to agencies, similar to those already in place in Northern Ireland. While the union will continue to pursue this, the lack of support from the current Government for such a system in England means that the onus is on the union at local level to bargain for A2A, and wherever we are successful to publicise those arrangements to share and pursue elsewhere.

Alongside this work, in order to put maximum pressure on non-compliant agencies, the union must increase work on AWR rights to identify and pursue cases to secure back pay for supply members. Regularly, supply members have to fight to receive back pay they are legally entitled to under AWR. These efforts will be successful when correctly pursued, but for individuals this is a stressful and resource-intensive process which makes support from the NEU locally very important.

NEU branches are key to the above in terms of their role negotiating with employers and representing members with respect to employers. NEU districts are also key in terms of their role in organising members’ participation in NEU activity.

To assist with the success of the work identified in this document, the NEU executive strongly encourages all NEU branches and districts to have, as part of their committees, a supply member officer. Supply officers play an important role both in working to involve supply members in local union activity (on supply issues and on other issues) and in promoting awareness and activity on supply issues locally. They can play a key role in taking forward the work proposed, as can the regional members of the NEU’s national Supply Organising Forum (OF) who can offer their support in seeking to coordinate activity across district and branch areas. A working group from the OF contributed significantly to the development of this toolkit and the research behind it.

Note that while ideally the supply officer should themselves be a supply educator, another member could initially be appointed as such in the absence of an active and willing supply member, with the aim of seeking to involve supply members one of whom might then be willing to take on the role.

A2A – rationale

The NEU believes that statutory education providers should use ethical models of temporary staff procurement. Currently, most schools pay third party commercial companies (recruitment agencies) in order to engage temporary daily staff. Over the past 10 years this system has become increasingly open to abuse and its inherent flaws have been exposed. The agency model of procurement has become associated with poor practice, falling pay and non-compliance with statutory obligations. This has been described by the NEU and the Labour Party as “The Agency Rip-Off” and it is having a demoralising effect on supply educators and agency workers in education.

Appendix 1 describes the current system and its alternatives. Further details of these publicly accountable alternatives are set out below, together with models of best practice. They allow for flexibility and illustrate a range of possible models of small- or large-scale engagement, acknowledging that options will differ according to circumstances in bargaining areas.

Appendix 2 deals with a further aspect of the “Agency Rip-Off” by setting out case studies on deliberate avoidance of AWR rights. The scale of avoidance/non-compliance appears to be significant and, as set out later in this briefing, the Union must support members locally and nationally to tackle this unlawful situation.

Steps for NEU districts and branches

Take steps to promote more direct hiring by schools

The NEU continues to advocate the direct employment of supply educators by schools and colleges, avoiding the use of agencies. Where supply staff are directly employed by the school, they can be employed on the same basis as permanent employees, including being paid on the same pay scales and in line with their length of professional experience, and being entitled to membership of the Teachers Pensions Scheme (TPS) or Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).

The DfE itself has now advised that “schools may wish to use longer assignments with supply teachers and agree a minimum number of hours across the academic year”. The NEU has written to school leaders suggesting that schools should consider hiring supply teachers and other supply staff directly on fixed-term flexible contracts. This would permit schools to have access to supply staff whom they know and employ regularly, saving on agency costs at the same time as reducing Covid-19 risks.

Now is therefore a good time for NEU branches and districts to approach schools and remind them of the merits of employing supply staff on flexible contracts or, failing this, directly employing them on an ad hoc basis when they are needed. The NEU nationally has informed school leaders that the union believes that “finders’ fees” will not apply to supply educators who have not worked for hiring schools during the period of lockdown.

Appendix 3 sets out the NEU’s recommended wording for school pay policies, which contains both a commitment to employing supply staff directly where possible and a commitment to paying them on the same basis as permanently employed staff. This could form the basis for a free-standing statement of commitment from schools, as well as being included in school pay policies when they are reviewed annually.

In discussions with schools, you should also point to the advantages of having sufficient permanent staffing to accommodate needs for replacement staff. Schools might prefer to hire an in-house floating cover teacher in preference to a cover supervisor. This model of engagement has the advantage of a staff member who can access planning and schemes of work, is qualified to prepare, deliver and mark lessons and cover for longer periods. Appendix 4 sets out an example job advert and contract. This model of engagement satisfies the key NEU demands, and may be particularly appealing given Covid-19 concerns around moving between schools. (The particular job advert is from a Catholic school, presumably having been approved at diocese level – indicating the opportunity which exists for NEU branches in negotiating the publication of similar models and accompanying guidance with other LAs, MATs and dioceses.)

Seek negotiations on establishing local supply pools run by LAs, MATS or dioceses

NEU branches should formally pursue the objective of more equitable methods of direct, on-payroll engagement of supply staff in all bargaining units in order to seek to deliver NEU conference policy. This can commence with a formal request from branches for information from all LA HR Depts and MAT CEOs about how they engage supply staff and the costs involved to inform bargaining responses. Appendix 5 provides a model letter for this purpose. Branches could also set out in their requests the scale of low pay and non-compliance with AWR that contributes to these intermediaries continuing as profitable businesses.

The criteria that an alternative model of supply educator engagement should ideally satisfy are:

  • pay scales match the teacher’s MPS/UPS grade
  • the hirer is a statutory service provider
  • no fees are paid to an intermediary
  • the teacher can pay contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme

These arrangements previously applied where local authorities ran their own supply pools. A small number of such pools are still in operation. Despite the changes in the education landscape, local authorities can still establish such arrangements, providing schools with access to a pool of in-house, on-call staff for short or longer term cover, directly employed and consequently paid to MPS/UPS scales. MATs, academy chains and dioceses also have the capacity to establish a small pool of in-house, on-call staff for short- or longer-term cover on the same basis.

Branches are therefore asked to approach local authorities, MATs and dioceses and open discussions on the establishment or re-establishment of supply pools.Agencies were able to overtake pools by offering a faster response time and often apparently lower charge rates than LEA pools.

Use of relevant software and apps, however, will simplify and rationalise the administration of a register of client schools and available teachers.

Appendices 6 and 7 are examples of schemes established by negotiation with the Kirklees LA and a Suffolk MAT. The Kirklees scheme includes a two-tier approach where day to day supply rates are capped at M4 but longer engagement is fully “paid to scale”. This is justified by the LA as reflecting the additional duties required on longer contracts; the unions are deciding whether to accept this or not, but it would still appear to deliver higher rates than agencies pay as well as access to TPS.

Appendix 8 sets out the operating arrangements of the much larger Northern Ireland register scheme.

In Wales, the NEU’s work helped secured the establishment of a non-mandatory Agency Framework which sets a minimum pay rate for supply teachers in Wales. The NEU is continuing to press the Welsh Government to set up a more robust system but in the meantime, in addition to the options in this toolkit, branches and districts in Wales should support and encourage the use of the existing framework by schools.

Features and benefits of a supply pool

There are numerous benefits to administering the hiring of supply staff through an LEA, MAT or diocesan pool.

Features and benefits of a supply pool
Features Benefits
Candidates are recruited, vetted and DBS checked by one accountable officer
  • This can be done by the existing HR office in the LEA/MAT/chain at no extra expense
  • Schools have direct control over who is hired and added to the database
  • Schools are more likely to get a subject/key stage specialist because they have access to the database
Three-way communication between HR, school and available teacher via an app or online platform
  • An app or computer-based system operates 24/7
  • Real time booking and confirmation on the spot
A locally accountable pool system is what many NEU supply members want
  • Temp staff will live within a defined radius of the school thus able to attend at short notice
  • Supply staff are more motivated because their pay reflects their qualifications and skills
Bank/pool staff will be familiar with the client school’s ethos and policies
  • Temporary pool staff are known to staff and students
  • Provides continuity and consistency
  • More likely to produce better educational outcomes
Bank/pool staff are paid on payroll (Appendix 7 Suffolk MAT pool)
  • Funds that were ring-fenced for education stay in the system
  • If a full-time vacancy arises, bank/pool staff on MPS/UPS can can become permanent staff without the need to pay agency transfer fees thus cancelling out the slightly higher short-term expense

Where LEAs, MATs and dioceses are not able to establish a pool – seek negotiations on establishing an ethical/co-operative provider

While this model of engagement does not satisfy all the NEU criteria, being a “third party provider” system and thus not eligible for TPS, if set up with NEU input it could ensure that co-operative providers do not make a profit from funds allocated for education.

The NEU northern regional office (NRO) is currently engaged with a well-developed North of Tyne Combined Authority Supply Teachers Cooperative Project – its Feasibility Study & Business Plan are set out at Appendix 9. The aim is to “assess the feasibility of developing a cooperative, not-for-profit alternative to the current commercial supply teacher agency model, initially for the North of Tyne Combined Authority area, but with the potential for regional or national rollout or replicability.”

The project plan envisaged a start date of September 2022 but it is possible that an earlier start date may be achievable. Should take-up from schools allow the co-operative to return an operating profit, those funds could be directed to further improve pay and pensions provision.

The NEU has set up a project engagement group involving interested lay members who can feed their experience and ideas into the project and potentially provide representation for the project’s steering group and in time an NEU nominated board member for the cooperative.

Support members employed via agencies to secure AWR rights

As noted above, we continue all too often to encounter cases where supply staff employed on longer term engagements or engagements which have continued longer than expected are denied the right to pay increases due under the terms of the AWR.

This toolkit aims to equip branches and districts with the capacity to offer greater support to supply members in casework on AWR claims. You should also encourage members to seek support in such cases, by making them aware both of their rights and of the support available locally.

The 2010 Regulations seek to ensure that agency workers are treated no less favourably than a comparable employee or worker directly employed by the hirer. From day one of an assignment they should have access to collective facilities and amenities as well as details of permanent vacancies. After 12 weeks in the same role with the same hirer they should receive the same basic pay and conditions as someone directly employed. The 12 weeks need not be full weeks, nor do they need to be consecutive. Gaps of up to 6 weeks between assignments pause the clock but do not stop it.

In order to help branches and districts to deal with members seeking support on AWR cases, Appendix 10 sets out a checklist of points which should be discussed and verified with such members in order to identify when a member has a potential claim under the AWR which can be pursued with the agency. More detailed guidance.

The NEU is also looking at further possible tools in this area.

The law is not totally clear in all matters relating to AWR eligibility and it cannot always be determined with certainty that someone is entitled to a payment. However, you should bear in mind that more often than not it is possible to achieve a payment when the checklist is met, simply by sending the relevant template letter in Appendix 10. If that does not deliver an agreed payment, however, then without delay you should refer to the regional office about next steps in the usual way. It should always be made clear to members, of course, that support to pursue matters with agencies creates no commitment at all to pursuing matters through any legal route.

Promote the NEU Supply Member Charter to schools

The NEU Supply Member Charter (see Appendix 11) sets out a range of expectations on, in particular, schools which would ensure fairer treatment for supply staff and better employment experiences however they are engaged. Branches and districts are encouraged, as part of work on this area, to circulate the Charter to workplace reps and encourage them to raise it with heads at the same time as they raise the issue of direct employment of supply staff and share experiences of how they get on. The charter can also be used by supply members themselves, whether in discussions with NEU representatives and other members or even with school leaders in the schools where they work. You can encourage this type of activity among supply members as part of ensuring their central involvement in this campaign.

Support calls on local agencies to pay more to supply staff

The NEU nationally has written formally to both main agency representative bodies, REC and APSCO, stating both that agency pay rates for supply staff in the education sector are far too low and that the NEU will be encouraging and supporting members to secure their rights under the AWR and inviting both bodies to issue joint guidance with the NEU on the latter area to their members.

Districts can play their part in this by making similar representations to all agencies operating locally. Appendix 12 includes the NEU letter to REC and APSCO which can be drawn upon when writing to agencies locally.

The NEU has a range of advice for individual supply members on pay and conditions matters, including advice on pay rates payable when in direct employment and on pay rates drawn from the annual NEU survey of supply members. This is being supplemented by some additional briefing material for members themselves to use in seeking better pay from their agency.


We hope that this toolkit will be useful in enabling Branches and Districts – and in particular their supply officers – in taking steps to support supply members. You and they can also work in conjunction with regional members of the Supply OF who are well placed to offer support and coordinate activity.

It is clear that pursuing the steps above will benefit some members but is unlikely to secure any lasting benefits for supply members generally. For that reason, taking the steps outlined earlier – aimed at encouraging the availability of more direct employment and establishing other non-agency avenues to employment – clearly offers far better prospects of helping the NEU make progress towards the Alternatives to Agencies, or A2A, which are so desperately needed.

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