The evidence provided from nearly 800 respondents enables us to form a reliable picture of the continuing problems facing members in this sector, especially at this time dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s supply survey received responses from supply teachers (90%) and support staff (10%); of which 4% were classroom-based staff and 6% occupied other support staff positions on a supply basis. This report looks at:

  1. Working as a supply educator
  2. Agency employment
  3. Experience with schools
  4. Employment prospects
  5. The supply workforce
  6. Conclusions and implications

Working as a supply educator – why and how

Reasons for deciding to work in a supply capacity

Previous NEU/NUT surveys have suggested that most supply staff enter supply work in pursuit of an employment pattern fitting with their personal circumstances, with lower proportions moving from regular work for health or other reasons, undertaking some school work in their retirement, or having not yet been able to obtain a permanent post.

However, as in 2019, the biggest single reason for moving to supply work in 2020 appears to be the workload in permanent posts.  This proved to be by some margin the single most widespread reason cited by this year’s respondents for taking on supply work, with 26% identifying this as the main factor in their decision. 

Other significant reasons for switching to supply work continued to be “it fits in with my family/home life circumstances” (20%) and “I cannot find a permanent post” (19%).

Many respondents continued in their comments to cite their disillusionment with the long hours and excessive paperwork and the testing and target-driven culture involved in permanent work.  Others cited work-related ill-health and stress as factors or said they had left permanent posts due to management bullying or redundancy. 

Many who chose the “other reasons” option nevertheless again focused on the perceived negative aspects of holding a permanent post as having been the primary reason for moving into supply work.  Some said that losing out to younger and cheaper colleagues when applying for permanent posts had left them with little option but to take up work in a supply role.

Actively seeking work

When asked if they were actively seeking work at present, nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents said they were, whilst 35% were not.  Of those who were not, 18% said this was due to concerns about Covid19, whilst 17% reported that it was for other reasons.

Getting supply work

The proportion of supply staff who principally or mainly obtain their work through agencies continues to rise.  In 2020, 83% of respondents now mainly work via agencies.  This is up one per cent from the 82% figure in the 2019 survey, which was itself higher than in 2018 (81%), 2014 (67%) and 2010 (50%).  The proportion of supply staff who mainly source their supply work through a local authority “supply pool” was 2%, down from 3% in 2019.  This has fallen significantly since the 2014 (8%) and 2010 (11%) surveys.   Only 13% now say they secure most or all of their supply work directly with schools.  This is the same percentage as in 2019, but is down from 15% in 2018, 25% in 2014 and 39% in 2010.

Desire for permanent employment

Although only 19% of respondents said they had decided to take up supply work because they could not find a permanent post, a much higher proportion (44%) said they would take up a permanent post if offered one.  Supply work remains, for many, a career choice which is difficult later on to reverse in favour of regular employment.

Agency employment

Agencies – which are the biggest?

Respondents to this year's survey again referred to working via almost 200 different supply agencies.  The following were the eleven largest agencies in terms of staff employed or placed - which accounted for 38% of the agency supply educators responding.

  • Teaching Personnel     8%
  • Vision for Education     7%
  • Protocol Education       5%
  • Tradewind                     3%
  • Hays Education             3%
  • Randstad Education      2%
  • New Directions              2%
  • Monarch                        2%
  • Supply Desk                  2%
  • Reed                              2%
  • Simply Education           2%

The eleven agencies listed here are almost identical to those listed in previous surveys.  Teaching Personnel occupied the top spot in 2014 and has remained there every year since.

Rates of pay

The figures in the following section apply to supply teachers only as the number of responses for support staff roles were insufficient to be reliable statistically.

Respondents were asked to specify their current standard daily rate of pay from their agency (banded as £100 or less, £100-124, £125-149 and £150 or more).

Although the percentage saying they are paid £150 or more per day fell from 9% to 7% compared with 2019, the percentage paid between £125 and £149 increased from 26% to 36%.  However, more respondents were paid at the lower level of £100-£124 where the percentage increased from 40% to 44%; while the percentage paid less than £100 decreased from 11% to 5%.  Finally, 7% could not choose one single option due to their pay rate varying between placements – down from 10%. 

When considering these pay rates, it should be noted that a daily rate of £100 means that, even if the member of staff works every day of the school year, they earn around £6,000 less than a newly qualified teacher in a full-time post.  Even a daily rate of £150 pays an experienced supply educator around 20% less than a teacher with 5 years’ experience paid at the Main Pay Range maximum.

This year an additional question was asked about pay rates for longer term assignments, which revealed some higher pay was forthcoming in such cases.  Four per cent of respondents reported pay rates in excess of £200, whilst 8% cited rates of £175-£199.  Nearly a third (31%) received £150-£174, whilst a further 31% were paid £125-149.  Meanwhile, even for a longer assignment, 18% received less than £125 per day

Regional pay variations continue to be substantial.  Agency educators in Greater London were better paid, with 24% paid £150 or more compared to 7% nationally, and 17% paid over £200 for longer assignments compared to 4% nationally.  The worst paid area was the South West, with 85% of respondents being paid less than £125 per day. 

When asked how their pay compared to the pay rate for the pay scale point on which they were most recently employed by a school or local authority, the vast majority (77%) said that their pay rate as a supply educator was lower or significantly lower.

Agencies and pensions

Supply agencies are covered by the “workplace pension” requirements which have been phased in since 2012.  This year, 64% of agency school staff (a slight fall from 66% in 2019) said that they can now build up pension provision through their agency work but with employer contributions continuing to remain generally at the statutory minimum.  If ‘don’t knows’ are excluded, this figure rises to 86%, but this still leaves 14% who said they have not been offered a workplace pension – despite the law requiring all agencies to do so.

Umbrella companies and Limited companies

This year, 27% of those surveyed said that they were paid through an umbrella company or offshore payroll company, rather than being employed by the agency.  This figure has risen slightly from last year’s figure of 25%.  Prior to this there had been a steady decline from a high of 47% in 2015, falling to 42% in 2016 and 30% in 2018.  This generally downward trend may indicate a decline in educators' willingness to enter umbrella company arrangements, which the NEU has advised members are not a requirement when working via agencies.

This year, only 17% said that that their agency insisted on staff working through umbrella companies or limited company arrangements, compared with 18% in 2019, 23% in 2018 and 62% in 2017.  Moreover, in 2020 respondents reported that 63% of agencies allowed respondents to be paid via PAYE as an alternative to umbrella arrangements, up from 59% in 2019.

As in 2019, this year's survey again asked about "limited company" arrangements, given the NEU’s significant reservations about the legal and tax position of supply educators in relation to “self-employment” arrangements.  Some 10% of respondents said they work through limited company arrangements, an increase on the 4% who reported that they did so in the 2019 survey.

Nearly three-fifths of those surveyed (59%) expressed the view that umbrella company and limited company providers were not entirely clear about their fees and services.

Cover supervisor work

Nearly a quarter (24%) of those surveyed said that they had accepted work as a “cover supervisor” which had in practice required actual teaching – up from 21% in 2019.  This shows a continuing worrying tendency by some schools to seek to secure supply teachers on even lower rates than those paid for supply teaching.  This problem continues to be more widespread in secondary schools than in the primary sector: 42% of secondary respondents reported this happening to them compared to only 14% of primary respondents.

Satisfaction with agencies – the advantages and disadvantages

The survey asked those working for agencies about the advantages and disadvantages of seeking supply work in this way.

As in previous years, the main perceived advantages were access to more regular work and a greater choice of such work than could be obtained through other routes.  The disadvantages included low pay, pay not reflecting experience, lack of training, assignments cancelled at the last minute, lack of entitlement to pensions, and “finders’ fees” placing an obstacle to being offered a job at a school after a successful placement.

Experience with schools

We again asked supply educators about their experience with schools and the support they receive on and after arrival.

The majority of supply staff told us that schools provided adequate help and support, with 70% saying this was “usually” or “always” the case.  This still means, however, that almost a third (30%) thought that schools “rarely” or “never” provided adequate help and support to supply educators. 

Those who answered “rarely” or “never” to the above question were then asked what were the principal issues they encountered regarding lack of support.  The following table sets out their responses.

Access to individual pupil information


Access to teaching / learning resources


Lack of named contact / support person


Access to class registers


Access to planned work for students


Access to premises / classrooms


Access to PPA time (longer assignments)


Access to school facilities (toilets/staffroom etc.)


Reasonable adjustments in the workplace (where applicable)


School safety in the pandemic

The majority of respondents (62%) said they felt safe in all or most schools since September 2020.  However, 21% declared that they only felt safe in some schools, whilst almost a fifth did not feel safe in all or most schools.  When asked if they were fully briefed by schools at the outset of every assignment since September 2020 with details of the schools’ day to day routines and safety protocols, only 55% said they were briefed in all/most schools.  Thirty per cent were appropriately briefed in only some schools.  Meanwhile 16% were not briefed in all or most schools.

Free responses on school safety standards gave a variable impression, with some schools praised for their efforts to do all they could in difficult circumstances whilst others were found wanting, especially on areas such as wearing of face coverings, social distancing and risk assessments.

Regarding agencies’ responses to the pandemic, forty-three per cent agreed that their agency provided them with information on school safety procedures in advance of engagements in all or most cases.  Twenty-one per cent said this happened in only some assignments, whilst 36% stated that they received no such information from their agency in advance of most engagements.

Current employment prospects

Availability of supply work

Previous surveys of supply staff and schools have suggested that supply work is becoming increasingly scarce.  The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend since March 2020.  The survey asked teachers how often they could access work when they wanted it, and how this compared to the previous year.  The decline in the availability of work is a further contributor to the low incomes on which many supply teachers have to exist.

Access to agency work

Availability of supply work via agencies fell to an even lower level than that reported in the 2019 survey.  Less than a quarter (23%) of agency educators - down from 29% in 2019 and just over half in 2016 - said that they could get work almost every day.   Slightly more (33%) could only obtain work about half the time (2019: 41%), while 23% sometimes could not obtain work for up to a week at a time, compared with 17% in 2019.  Seventeen per cent said they were being offered no work for weeks at a time, up from 12% in 2019.

Access to direct employment

This route to obtaining work now appears to be even more precarious for those who rely upon it for income.  Only 16% of those who seek their supply work in this way said they could get work almost every day, with just 28% able to get work half of the time (2019: 32%).  Twenty-six per cent said they could not get work for up to a week at a time, whilst 17% reported being unable to access work for weeks at a time – a modest but welcome fall from 22 per cent in 2019.  Nevertheless, eight per cent of respondents were very rarely able to obtain work at all.

Access to supply work by sector

Only 19 per cent of primary respondents could obtain work almost every day, a fall from 24% in 2019.  This compares with 26% of secondary respondents, similarly down from 31% in the previous survey.  Meanwhile 32% of primary and 34% of secondary respondents could get work around half of the time.   Fourteen per cent of both secondary and primary respondents were offered no work for weeks at a time.

Trends in access to work

When asked to compare their situation to the previous year, 46% of agency supply educators and 49% of those directly employed as supply educators said that getting work was becoming increasingly hard – compared with 45% and 49% respectively last year.

Composition of the supply workforce

Teachers/support staff

Responses to this survey were comprised of 90% teachers and 10% support staff.  Of this 10%, four per cent were classroom-based staff and six per cent fulfilled other support staff roles such as peripatetic staff, librarians and exam invigilators.


As in previous years, the survey suggests that the supply workforce is considerably older than the school workforce generally.  68% of all respondents and 66% of agency educator respondents were over 45, compared to only 20% of the total teaching workforce.  Supply educators aged 35 or under, on the other hand, made up only 10% of all respondents and 12% of agency educator respondents, compared to 42% of the overall teacher workforce.


The composition of the survey response - 81% female - suggests that the supply workforce remains very similar in this respect to the wider school workforce.  This year’s survey again suggested little difference in the experiences of women and men in relation to the matters surveyed, other than that women were more likely to cite family/home life circumstances as their reason for working as a supply educator.


The survey found that 84% of supply educators were White / White British compared to 87.5% of the whole workforce.  Meanwhile, 3% were Black / Black British, compared with 2% of the whole workforce; and 4% were Asian / Asian British compared to 3.7% in the whole workforce.  These figures are broadly unchanged from 2015. 

BME supply staff were more likely to be based in London and the West Midlands and more likely to work for agencies.  They were also paid slightly more on average (23% reported a usual daily pay rate of £150 or more compared with 7% overall) although the proportion based in Greater London may help explain the pay differential.

Sexual orientation

Taken together, 7% of respondents identified as bisexual, lesbian, gay or other. 


Four per cent of respondents defined themselves as disabled. 

Experience in regular employment

While more than 60% of supply educators had over 10 years’ experience in regular posts, 26% of respondents had less than 5 years, of which 14% had less than 2 years. 

Experience in supply work

The survey reaffirmed that for many respondents, supply work has become long term employment – more than one in seven said they had worked in a supply capacity for more than ten years.  However, three fifths said they had less than 5 years’ experience in supply work, and nearly a quarter had less than 2 years (23%).

Conclusions and implications for the neu’s work

Respondents were again asked to suggest what priorities the NEU should be following to improve conditions for its supply members.  The results are as follows:

Campaign for national register of supply teachers and support

  staff, paying in line with national pay rates                                     80%

Campaign for higher pay from supply agencies                                 61%

Campaign for Alternatives to Agencies (A2A)                                    55%

Campaign for national standards for supply agencies                       38%

Promotion of NEU supply charter to schools                                     30%

Publication of more NEU guidance for supply teachers                    28%         

All of these are already NEU priorities and will continue to be actively pursued.

The supply workforce is an important element of total school workforce supply.  Most supply staff continue to elect to work in this way and - despite the problems relating to pay and pensions – supply work continues to draw in teachers and support staff who no longer wish to work, or feel they cannot continue to work, in a regular post.  As has been noted previously in these survey reports, this is a clear indication of the need for action on workload and other pressures for the school workforce generally, both to keep those in permanent posts and to attract supply educators back into permanent work. 

Many, however, take up supply work because they cannot find a permanent job and many more discover it is more difficult than they thought it would be to return to a regular post when they wish to do so.  Agency supply staff continue to be paid less – often much less – than their permanent counterparts and continue to be denied access to the Teachers' Pension Scheme or Local Government Pension Scheme, and agencies continue to be a drain on school expenditure at the same time as being the dominant source of work for supply staff.  This 2020 survey report, therefore, once again shows that the need for the NEU’s campaign for fair play for supply staff is as great as ever.