Supply teachers who can adapt quickly and effectively to different schools, pupils, subjects and age groups play a vital role in our education system. Nevertheless, supply teachers have seen marked changes to their employment patterns in recent years, and not for the better. There has been a sharp rise in the number of supply teacher agencies, which rake off scarce funds from schools to maximise their profits whilst minimising the pay they offer supply teachers.
The daily agency charge to schools for a teacher can be as much as £100 more than the amount paid to that teacher. Each time a supply teacher is engaged in this way, taxpayers’ money is funnelled into the pockets of agencies. The NEU fundamentally opposes the way agencies drain public money away from children’s education.
Despite teacher shortages, agency supply teachers’ pay has declined in recent years, compared both with teachers’ pay rates nationally and with rates typically offered by agencies in the past. In addition to poor pay, agency supply teachers don’t have access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS), are denied national sick pay/maternity pay provisions, and they can be dismissed without notice.
Supply teachers who work directly for a school or a local authority (LA) supply ‘pool’ are paid at national pay rates and have access to the TPS. Unfortunately the availability of such work has declined in recent years as the influence of supply agencies has increased. According to NEU surveys,1 76% of supply teachers reported that they obtained most of their work through agencies in 2018, up from 50% in 2010, while the proportion who mainly found their work through a local authority supply pool or directly from schools, was down by more than half.
‘Finder’s fees’ (charged to schools wishing to take on a supply teacher as a permanent employee) are another cost imposed by agencies. Such fees can be as much as 25% of the employee’s first year’s salary, unaffordable for many schools.
The Agency Worker Regulations (AWR) 2011 do not always protect agency teachers from sharp practice. After 12 weeks in the same role and with the same hirer, agency staff should get the same basic pay and conditions as directly-employed staff. However, some agencies and schools try to avoid the legislation - in particular by dispensing with the teacher before the 12 week period is up. Often, the same teacher is later re-engaged with the ‘clock’ having returned to Week One. There are also reports that some agencies simply do not inform supply teachers of their rights under AWR.
Some agency supply teachers are only offered work via ‘umbrella companies’. The NEU advises members against entering into such arrangements wherever possible, as they impose further unnecessary costs which cut their pay still further.
Some teachers seek supply teaching work through ‘limited company’ arrangements. The Union has significant reservations about these too, given that they are based on a strict definition of self-employment which teachers are unlikely to satisfy. As with umbrella companies, NEU members are advised not to enter into such arrangements.
Another model which the NEU wishes to see explored is the ‘supply register’ model, based on the one which operates in Northern Ireland. This is publicly accountable, non-profit making, pays to scale and gives access to the TPS.
The increasing dominance of agencies, the cost of agency teachers and the current education funding crisis all mean that the use of the supply teacher is under threat. All too often schools are resorting to cheaper alternatives such as higher level teaching assistants or cover supervisors. Despite the undoubted professionalism of such staff, they may lack the necessary training and qualifications to teach with the quality and consistency which our children deserve.
In England, the DfE is continuing to press ahead with the development of a ‘procurement framework’ for supply teachers. Under the framework, agencies will continue to be the principal supplier of supply teachers to schools, but there would be greater regulation of agencies wishing to hold ‘approved’ status and some limits on contractual costs to schools. However, crucially there would be no additional rights in pay or employment terms for supply teachers. The Union’s response to the proposal, submitted in 2017, rejected this framework as grossly inadequate for the needs of schools and teachers alike. It does not appear to offer a platform upon which a more robust system offering the type of protection sought by members could be built.
In Wales, progress has been slow towards reaching agreement on a new supply teacher platform. The Welsh Government has been discussing for some time possible alternatives to the existing ‘preferred supplier’ arrangement with the New Directions agency. The NEU continues to advocate exploration of the ‘supply register’ model (as in Northern Ireland – see above) as providing the fairest deal for both teachers and schools.
The NEU has published a new Charter for Supply Teachers, which sets out the Union's aspirations for its supply teacher members and the steps needed to achieve them. 2 In particular the Charter calls for supply teachers’ pay and conditions to be brought in line with the national pay arrangements for school teachers and for all supply teachers to have access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Government, agencies, schools and supply teachers themselves all have their part to play in securing fair and equal treatment for supply teachers. The Union believes that the achievement of the Charter’s key objectives will be good for students and schools as well as for teachers.
The NEU campaigns vigorously not just to protect the existing rights of its supply teacher members but to improve their pay and conditions so that they are employed in a way that is fair and equitable and properly rewards their skills and experience. We engage with Government to influence legislation, for example we sought and won improvements to the Agency Worker Regulations (AWR) in 2010. We also work with agency bodies such as the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) to seek improvements in agency practice. Since 2013 the Union has held national conferences for its supply teacher members to discuss ways of promoting supply teachers' networking and involvement in the NEU and its wider campaigns; it has set up a National Organising Forum for supply teachers (a member-led forum to bring together supply teacher activity within the Union) and has introduced the lay role of supply teacher officer in every local association. The NEU also holds regular training sessions for its supply members, both nationally and locally.
The NEU is committed to the principle that schools should only employ qualified teachers in all schools, whatever the context. In cases of teacher absence, the response should invariably be to call upon a qualified supply teacher to deliver high quality learning experiences for the pupils concerned. Any other option is simply not good enough.