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Teaching after the crisis: supply and demand

The rapid deregulation of supply teaching has robbed qualified staff and our nation’s children. Now is the the time to bring it back in-house, argues MELANIE GRIFFITHS

THE Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the many inefficiencies caused by the deregulation, fragmentation and privatisation of our public services.

Many are saying we cannot go back to “business as usual” when the crisis ends. We must make sure that that is the case. We must demand secure jobs and integrated, holistic public services.

Even the Financial Times, in its article “virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract” (April 3 2020) recognises that we need: “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades… Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure.”

“Countries that have allowed the emergence of an irregular and precarious labour market are finding it particularly hard to channel financial help to workers with such insecure employment,” it continues.

This has been particularly true for supply teachers and support staff working in England and Wales who have had no choice but to work in schools through many different types of agency.

As I write, some supply staff are still fighting to be furloughed by their agency, being told by an outsourced umbrella-payroll company that furlough means pay of 80 per cent of the minimum wage, trying to convince head teachers not to cut short long-term engagements or are waiting to hear from the government how local-authority supply pools will be able to compensate staff employed through them. It’s a mess!

Supply teaching and other casual work is by its nature precarious — but it has its advantages for the worker in terms of flexibility.

However, over the last few decades due to the deregulation, fragmentation, privatisation and underfunding of our public services the disadvantages of working in this way have become more acute.

In education, the deregulation process in England and Wales was begun by the 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA).

Over the years funding has been steadily transferred from local-authority central services and given directly to schools. School leaders have been given the “opportunity” to opt out of using local-authority provided services and look for “best value.”

The headteacher and nominally the governing body are now in control of the school’s budget. They, guided by the business manager, decide how and where to spend this money.

This “freedom” for schools to spend money however they like has opened the way to outsourcing and the birth of the private supply-teacher agency.

Under the Blair government school funding was good, and schools were still happy in the main to pay supply teachers to scale.

Often schools engaged known competent supply teachers directly or accessed them from local-authority supply pools.

There were private agencies but they were just part of the mix. However, after the 2007 general election, in the age of austerity, school leaders and business managers began to look for more and more savings.

In England and to a large extent Wales, schools are now businesses. Schools which are academies or are part of multi-academy trusts actually have a CEO.

A business, when strapped for cash, will look for savings. Over the decades since 1988 all the tools have been put in place to drive down the pay and conditions of supply teachers.

The introduction of the “cover supervisor” post (an unqualified, non-teaching supervisory role), the demise of the local-authority supply pool, the proliferation of competing private supply agencies combined with underfunding, has meant that the vast majority of supply teachers now have significantly poorer pay than their permanent colleagues.

Most supply teachers have no access to the teacher’s pension scheme, very limited if any access to in-service training and little protection from poor employment practices. For example, an experienced teacher could be paid just over half of the amount per day they would be paid if they were contracted to a school.

After 12 weeks with same employer, legislation requires that teachers should be paid to scale — but some agencies don’t do this automatically and some try to avoid doing it by ending assignments before the 12-week point.

Engagements are cancelled at the last minute, perhaps even while travelling to the school. Qualified teachers are offered work as cover supervisors instead, further eroding their pay.

Work is scarcer as schools use cheaper, sometimes unqualified in-house education workers to cover classes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Scotland one document agreed with unions covered all supply teachers and guaranteed them an income to tide them over the Covid-19 crisis, because all teachers in Scotland are legally employees of the local authority.

In Scotland the 1988 Education Reform Act didn’t apply: in Scotland there are no private supply agencies for supply staff.

The advantages to bringing supply staff back in-house are obvious for staff: a proper pay structure, access to the pension scheme, access to in-service training, ability to organise within their trade union and have their rights recognised and upheld.

However, in addition to this there are considerable advantages for schools too.

A properly maintained local-uthority supply pool with an easy-to-use digital platform would make it simple for schools to select suitably qualified supply staff, contact and engage them.

No longer would schools be contacting several agencies to try to find a worker.

They would have access to every registered supply teacher in the area and have confidence that these teachers have been thoroughly vetted and fairly interviewed by the local authority.

The agency system is inefficient. It’s common for secondary schools to have to make do with a teacher who is not qualified in the subject they are covering.

Teachers are travelling long distances to get to the school their agency has placed them with.

A pool would mean schools could easily develop a relationship with a number of supply teachers close by.

It is much better for schools to have supply teachers who regularly work with them, as these teachers will be more efficient as they will know the school’s system and the pupils.

Historically supply teaching has been a way for schools to find staff they like and recruit them to permanent positions.

An introduction through an agency however means a finder’s fee of at least 10 per cent of the candidate’s gross annual salary.

This obviously would not be the case if the introduction was through the local authority.

Over the last years Labour has recognised the problems that the outsourcing of our public services has caused and has started to develop policies which, had they been elected, would have begun to address this.

Labour promised in its 2019 manifesto to set up “a new teacher supply service [which] will tackle the waste of funds going to private supply-teacher agencies.”

Although there was no detail on how this national supply service would work and how schools would have been compelled to use it, the commitment to bring the supply service back in-house was welcome.

We are now in a very different place than we were last year. We are likely facing a Tory government for 4-5 years.

However this is an example of a policy area where we could actually get a win. Nationally it is unlikely, but we could try to get incremental change through councils and schools themselves. Teachers’ trade unions and other unions representing school supply staff need to develop a campaigning strategy.

Head teachers need to be encouraged to employ supply teachers either directly or through local-authority supply pools where they exist. We must encourage councils, especially Labour councils, to establish or where they already exist maintain and upgrade local supply pools.

On an issue like this it is possible to build a coalition. Many groups have a vested interest in doing something about how supply staff are deployed to schools: obviously, workers and their trade unions and school leaders who actually care about quality educational provision — but most importantly parents.

Because some of the main victims of marketisation of schools are children. Casualisation of the supply service is as bad for children as it is bad for staff.

An adequately resourced and integrated supply service, where qualified teachers are paid properly and schools have the opportunity to use staff trained to do the job that they are being employed to do, means a better service for all our children.

When lockdown is over we cannot go back to business as usual. We must look at every aspect of our education system and make it work for pupils and staff.

Melanie Griffiths is NEU Supply Officer in Yorkshire and chair of Socialist Education Association.

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