Supply teaching: All dressed up, nowhere to go

Written by: Sue Binding | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The life of a supply teacher is rarely made easy by schools, despite the huge amounts of money they spend on supply each year. Sue Binding offers nine rules for schools to make supply teaching effective

Surely it’s time to value our supply teachers? After all, a school spends, on average, almost £60,000 each year on their services.

We have all seen them. The unaccompanied stranger wearing an ID badge in the staffroom with a packed lunch and possibly reading a book. Do we say hello? Ask how they are getting on? Whether they know where the nearest toilet is?

Often, however, we don’t say anything because they are only here for a day and we are far too busy anyway.

Take a closer look and you will see a fully qualified, experienced and often “good” teacher who is a real and probably very nice person and for whatever reason needs to work in a challenging, underpaid and often ignored role – much like your own, some of you will be thinking.

They are working today but maybe only yesterday they were waiting by the phone, dressed, primed and ready to go – only to be told there was no work, sorry.

Now imagine you turn up to school today but it’s not your normal school. It looks like a school, smells like a school but it’s completely different in every way.

You are surrounded by more than 1,000 people you do not know. It is like a first day, every day. You grip the folder supplied by the usually very lovely person who manages the supply staff. If you lose this you are literally lost.

Your timetable (full), your map (hard to read) and your cover lessons (if you’re lucky) are all in there. Don’t waste time looking for any SEND information though because it is usually missing.

And then you’re off. Tutor group first, once you get the door unlocked. Then lesson one, guided by a reliable student and this is when the day gets better. The students are generally lovely and very understanding, up to about year 10, then it’s open season.

You have got teaching skills and strategies but you don’t know the students so, as you can imagine, the potential for a delivering a good lesson is limited. Then it is all down to the cover lesson and notes provided – and if you have ever been given cover in your own school you will know what I mean.

Schools in England spent £1.3 billion on “directly employed supply teachers, agency supply teachers and supply teacher insurance” in 2015/16 according to government statistics. And we have no idea of the value we are getting, because it’s not measured.

At a guess I would say that if a third of all supply lessons were productive that would be an achievement. But the truth is we don’t know because it is not measured and the quality of the cover set is not scrutinised in the same way that ordinary lessons are.

If good lessons are not prepared then maybe we should pay less for supply teachers and simply get a babysitter in? It would certainly save money and a lot of wasted effort.

The government’s figures average out at £58,699 spent per-school (both primary and secondary). How can we ensure that this is achieving the learning we hope it is? Here are nine rules for schools to follow:

  1. It’s all down to the work that is set. Heads of Department should feel confident that it is appropriate and will actually result in learning. You may think it is a one-off but how many lessons in your department were not taught by the class teacher last year?
  2. Make your supply teacher feel welcome and part of the team – even if it is for just one day. They need to rehydrate, eat and go to the loo just like you so why not make it easier by showing them where everything is. After all, they are here to help you because you have a problem.
  3. Allocate the task of looking after supply to someone in the department. It won’t take more than a few minutes but it will make a big difference to the day.
  4. Check in on them. Not only will it signal your support but it will remind students that you are watching and hence may avoid difficult behaviour.
  5. Double check that any resources needed are actually there. Following instructions for students to cut out articles is difficult without a set of class scissors.
  6. Ask your supply teacher what their specialism is. You may have a business teacher trying to teach a physics lesson, so you will need to adapt this so that the students are not misled, frustrated or given the chance to belittle a perfectly good teacher.
  7. Keep a file of suitable cover lessons handy for last minute sickness leave. This sounds obvious but it rarely exists. A couple of lessons per class which are suitable for anyone to teach could be a useful task for your next INSET day. Far better than another “painful death by PowerPoint”.
  8. Ask for genuine and measurable feedback. This is usually ad hoc at best and just ends up filed. Most supply teachers are happy to do this and it will help you get better results from cover lessons in future. For example, knowing that Harry couldn’t actually read well would have been a great help to the supply teacher who only saw a stroppy year 11 avoiding work.
  9. Try to get to know regular supply staff so that future bookings are more productive and flow more smoothly. You can always ask for a specific person, which makes everybody’s lives easier. But if you haven’t followed rule two – making your supply teacher feel welcome – then you won’t benefit from this approach.

And next time anyone sees that stranger in the staffroom, please remember that they care just as much you do and are there to help. And because one day it could be you covering, or even one of your own children in that lesson.

  • Sue Binding is a supply teacher.


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