All you need to know about long-term supply

Zofia Niemtus

All You Need To Know About Long-term Supply

As the UK’s teacher shortage continues, schools are increasingly relying on supply staff to plug the gaps: spending on agency staff in 2015-16 (the latest figures available) reached £1.3 billion and the market is estimated to be growing at a rate of about 5 per cent a year.

The system does bring some benefits for school leaders; putting a supply teacher in place is much faster and – initially, at least – cheaper than a time-consuming and expensive recruitment process.

It can also act as a kind of try-before-you-buy period, with leaders able to see how a member of staff fits in before making the decision to employ them permanently.

But there are technical factors to consider, including changes to employment rights as a supply appointment continues, and the possibility of incurring hefty fees when making the switch to permanent staff. So, what should school leaders bear in mind?

Things to look out for

Employee rights

Supply staff employed through a recruitment agency – about 80 per cent, according to a 2017 NASUWT survey – are covered by the standard agency worker’s rights (AWR). These state that after 12 weeks’ service (including breaks, such as half-terms), they are entitled to equal treatment with other members of staff, which means equal pay, pension enrolment and holiday allowance.

The agency is still the employer, which means they are in charge of setting the rate of pay and the conditions of employment. But AWR states that it is the school’s responsibility to provide the agency with the most up-to-date information about their terms and conditions to enable agency staff to receive the same treatment as if they had been recruited directly. This can affect the rate that is charged by the agency, so be sure to discuss this before that 12-week mark is reached.

Training and pay

It’s sensible to check out a variety of agencies as there can be huge variations between them. Explore their policies around areas such as continuing professional development, sick pay and safeguarding training, as well as the crucial issue of fees, to ensure that you and your supply staff aren’t getting a raw deal.

Primary teacher Bhumika Sharma says she repeatedly came up against difficulties with pay during her years as a supply teacher. “Some agencies gave me a day rate that was much lower than I should have been on,” she explains. “I was working as an M6, but some of the agencies I was with were paying me far, far less than I would have got in a school.”

In response to the well-reported issues in this area, the Department for Education (DfE) released a supply tool earlier this year providing a list of approved agencies that have agreed to be transparent about their fees, including how much they actually pay to teachers.

Transfer fees

If you find a supply teacher that you’d like to offer a permanent post, you may find yourself facing a transfer fee. These can be charged by agencies when a teacher switches from supply to permanent and they are hugely controversial, with some as high as 30 per cent of a teacher’s annual salary.

In some cases, the cost can be so extreme that leaders end up passing over potential staff who would be a good fit, as primary teacher Samina Randall discovered first hand when she switched from a permanent role to supply in 2013.

“I had no idea about transfer fee payments until a headteacher told me I was too expensive for her to employ,” she explains. “I was a year and a half in and it was the first I’d heard of these fees. In the end, the headteacher advertised the job instead.”

Be sure to scrutinise the small print around transfer fees before you take on a supply teacher to avoid being hit with an unexpected bill. All of the agencies listed on the DfE’s supply tool have also agreed to offer opportunities for schools to avoid these fees.  

How to make sure you’re getting good value

Negotiating terms

Samina Randall decided to open her own “ethical supply agency”, Transpose, in 2015 and, after working in the industry for several years, advises leaders and business managers to be proactive about negotiating for better terms.

“I always get surprised that they wait until they need somebody and they’re desperate before they start negotiating,” she says. “They would have more power if they were to sort it out before. If, every time they had a supply – or even when they signed the contract – they were to agree at that point, that would give them more power.”

But Andrew Morris, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union highlights the difficulties faced by leaders and staff in making these deals.

“School leaders are quite rightly conscious of often-excessive supply agency charges, but lower charges are often achieved at the expense of the supply teacher, not the agency,” he says. “Schools and supply teachers have to be cautious when dealing with them.”

The NEU is advocating for a supply register approach, he continues, such as the one used in Northern Ireland, where supply teachers are registered centrally, paid according to national rates and there is “none of the sharp practice associated with the agency model”.

Communication with your teacher

The most important aspect of any teaching appointment is ensuring that the teacher can do their job effectively. This is something to pay close attention to with supply staff, who can often be left feeling sidelined and even ignored, says Dan Jackson, a supply teacher in Sussex.

He has been undertaking supply work for close to two years after returning to the UK from teaching in Qatar, and says he has had good and bad experiences. The key, he explains, is clear, detailed communication about the school and its policies around areas such as behaviour, marking and homework.  

“If you want something done a particular way, tell them and then show them,” he says. “Because otherwise they’re going to come in and do things as they have always done them.

“I’ve had experiences where hardly anyone came in to see me at all, so I carried on doing things the way I had been trained to at previous schools and that caused a lot of stress. Personally, I have an open-door policy now.”

He continues: “It all comes down to the leadership team at the end of the day. Supply teachers are professionals, so leaders should treat them as such. If they just leave you to get on with it with no discussion, there are going to be issues.”

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

Did you know you can now request long-term or daily supply teachers from multiple agencies in one place? Check out our new Supply Manager tool.

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