A more ethical system for supply teachers

Written by: Chris Keates | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Supply teachers are the backbone of our education system, yet are falling victim to the government’s race to the bottom on wages, says Chris Keates

In the Queen’s Speech in December the government set out a raft of proposals on workers’ rights which included a pledge to make “Britain the best place in the world to work”, to promote “fairness in the workplace”, and to introduce “measures that protect those in low-paid work and the gig economy” (2019).

Data suggests that around 10 per cent of all workers – 3.7 million people – are in insecure work, reliant on zero hours contracts where they have little or no certainty from one day to the next what hours they will be working or what they will earn (Sharp, 2019).

Supply teachers are among the millions affected by the growth of such exploitative working practices.

Rates of pay have remained stagnant for the overwhelming majority of supply teachers. Low-paid, insecure and precarious work offered irregularly makes it impossible for supply teachers to manage their finances or to plan for the future.

More and more supply teachers report that they find themselves in a precarious financial situation where they have to make tough spending decisions or have to rely on the increased use of credit or the generosity of family and friends to make ends meet. This is not a basis for a quality education service.

Supply teachers are the backbone of the school system. Yet the increased use of agency and casual employment is a key source of stress and anxiety for hard-working supply teachers.

Paying teachers as little as schools can get away with is a culture that has impacted on many. In the last decade, the government’s decision to remove the requirement on all schools to employ qualified teachers has contributed to the race to the bottom on teachers’ pay. Many supply teachers report that they are increasingly being offered work at cover supervisor rates of pay.

The latest NASUWT national supply teachers survey found that one in five supply teachers said they are frequently offered work below their qualification level as a teaching assistant or cover supervisor, of which 83 per cent said this is at a lower rate of pay than they would receive as a teacher; 17 per cent of supply teachers said they had been asked by an agency to undertake a “free trial” at a school prior to undertaking paid supply work (NASUWT, 2019).

Nearly half said they have been asked to sign a contract or agreement with an umbrella company and 15 per cent of supply teachers said they had been denied access to a permanent job by an agency imposing a finder’s fee penalty on a school.

While maintained schools spend in excess of £1 billion every year on supply teachers, around three-quarters of this spending goes into the pockets of employment agencies.

The current supply teacher market benefits no one more than the owners of these agencies, with supply teachers, schools and tax-payers losing out through the higher costs and profiteering that is the result of a largely unregulated agency model.

To make good on its promises the government can and must intervene to end this exploitation. It could start with stronger regulation, national standards properly enforced and by ensuring that public money cannot be spent on procuring the services of teachers from those agencies that breach these standards or fail to operate appropriately.

The reinstatement of local supply pools would also be a step in the right direction, together with prohibiting agencies from charging schools finder’s fees when a teacher is offered permanent employment.

We will be pressing the government to recognise that securing decent standards for the workforce, including supply teachers, is critical to maintaining the high educational standards on which the country depends.

With the necessary political will, a more ethical system for employing supply teachers is possible, one which works in the interests of teachers, pupils, schools and the public at large, and which will deliver on the government’s pledge to protect rights at work for everyone. 

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