Supply teaching: Meet Mary Steppin...

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The life of a supply teacher can be tough, but sometimes necessary. Gerald Haigh offers some words of wisdom.

Are you a supply teacher, or have you ever been one? I did supply after I left headship and quickly learned that however much status you have accrued, like worldly wealth, you cannot take it with you into the after-life.

Going on supply, in fact, is a bit like joining the SAS, where even the most experienced entrant loses their existing rank and becomes simply “Trooper X”, self-reliant, honed for action.

Schools could not survive without supply teachers. They make up almost 10 per cent of the teaching force, so on any day in any school some classes will be taught by a supply teacher. Most are fine, some are brilliant, a few are liabilities and, sadly, some run off in distress at morning break never to be seen again.

What, though, do other teachers really know about them and, particularly, about their pay and conditions of employment? Last year, both the NUT and the NASUWT carried out surveys of their supply teacher members. Using some of their data, allow me to conjure up notional supply teacher, Mary Steppin.

Mary, aged 50, went on supply four years ago, after a series of permanent full and part-time posts. It was a step she took by choice, for personal reasons. She is employed by an agency, is paid significantly less than she was earning in her permanent jobs and is unable to join the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).

Nevertheless, she enjoys the flexibility of her work, which she can fit around the family issues that caused her to take it up. She’s always been a good teacher, and relishes the challenges that come with tackling different classes – even though she’s sometimes asked to cover subjects outside her speciality. She generally feels welcome, although she has supply teacher friends who have not been allowed to use the school car park, and one or two who say they have been unwelcome in the staffroom. 

She also knows many younger supply teachers who have never had a permanent post and are still finding their feet with little or no support. Some of these believe they have an unfair share of difficult classes.

What Mary does miss out on is CPD. Since she went on supply she has had no opportunity to progress or develop professionally and has to play catch-up when she encounters unfamiliar methods or curriculum changes. 

She believes that younger supply teachers who hope to use their experience to land permanent posts are particularly disadvantaged by this lack of access to training.

Mary, of course, is a composite character, put together from the union surveys, and it is quite possible to put together other examples – such as the frustrated teacher under-30, who longs for a permanent post, or the one who, having retired, is on call to be employed only by their old school as required.

Her story, though, does illustrate some of the key findings of the surveys, which tell us that half of supply teachers are over 50, two-thirds find work through agencies, many have no access to the TPS, over half have had more than 10 years experience of regular teaching, and a very significant number are doing supply as a lifestyle choice.

That said, to see the whole story, it is necessary to study both surveys. They contain considerable detail, although, understandably, given differences of methodology they don’t always agree.

The most important messages, though, are common to both, and point both at agencies and at schools.

Agencies, it is claimed, too often underpay teachers, are not able to enrol them in the TPS, do not always abide by employment regulations, and may sign them up to be paid by “umbrella” companies – a legal but complicated tax avoidance practice about which teacher unions urge their members to be cautious and seek advice. 

Schools, for their part, sometimes ask supply teachers to cover subjects for which they are not qualified, often fail to provide adequate support or training (even where the teacher is newly qualified) and may expect them to cover more than a fair share of difficult classes (it is worth remembering that Ofsted may well ask a school for evidence of how it supports supply staff).

So does this mean that going on supply is a bad thing? Not at all. As Mary Steppin has found, it can be rewarding and convenient. 

I’d just advise colleagues on supply, though, to keep in mind your qualified teacher status, which means respecting your own ability and professionalism, being ready to stand up for yourself, both with the agency and the schools, at the same time never hesitating to seek advice and support from your union or professional association.

Perhaps most importantly, because it is often forgotten among more immediate concerns, look to your pension provision, because every year of teaching you do outside of the TPS chips a little more from your post-retirement lifestyle.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

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