When a school is short on staff, calling on a supply teacher can be a life-saver, but it’s imperative to know where you stand legally when entering into such contracts.
We spoke to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, and Rachael Warwick, vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders and executive headteacher of Ridgeway Education Trust in Oxfordshire, to glean their advice on getting it right.
Have the proper paperwork
When first establishing a relationship with an agency, it is important to ask the right questions. These could include whether or not you need the services of an agency and if direct employment or the use of the local authority’s pooled supply (where it exists) could be a better alternative for the school and the supply teacher.
The NASUWT union says schools should ensure that there is a written contract clearly outlining the key details, including all costs. This should also establish the details of how the supply agency engages with and treats the supply teacher, including all legislative requirements under relevant employment legislation.
Find out about transfer fees
The contract with an agency should also be clear about transfer fees; these are the charges applied to a school when a supply teacher moves to become a full-time member of staff. “But an agency can only charge if they have offered the school an ‘extended period of hire’ in the contract,” Keates explains. “If they don’t have that, they can’t charge the fee.”
Warwick advises schools to consider the budget carefully when faced with this situation. “It’s not ideal,” she explains.“ I’ve paid up to £12,000 for someone in the past. The person was excellent, actually, and it was worth the money because they have stayed in the school for the past five years, but it’s a really risky business, especially at a time when schools have such pressure on their budgets.”
Be clear on cancellation
It’s important to remember that any of the three parties can cancel the assignment at any point.
This often significantly disadvantages supply teachers, Keates says, but leaders should also be aware that if an agency worker comes to their school and doesn’t like it, then they can walk away. Be sure to check the terms of the contract in this area to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Make the mark-ups known
The difference between what an agency charges the school and what is paid to the teacher can be stark, but you are entitled to ask for a breakdown of the costs. “It can be quite a shady area,” says Warwick.
“I’ve had a couple of supply teachers who liked the school, and they asked to come in and work directly because I was paying so much more through the agency (arrangements such as this could possibly incur a transfer fee). It was interesting to find out when someone volunteers the information, but it’s not easy to extrapolate that from the paperwork.”
“A leader might think that, for £200, they’re getting a supply teacher and the lion’s share of that fee is going to the teacher,” says Keates.
“That often isn’t the case. When procuring a supply teacher, schools should seek confirmation from agencies about the level of payment and take account of factors like experience and previous salary level. It may be worth paying a supply teacher to scale in order to meet the needs of the school in that instance.”
Check the type of contract
The NASUWT warns that some agencies use contracts that deny supply teachers their right to equal pay after 12 weeks. These often say that the teachers will be provided with work between contracts, but frequently that isn’t the reality, as a result of clauses about minimum hours or travel, which can be “extremely unrealistic” for the supply teacher.
Leaders should ask about the contract type and make sure supply staff are receiving fair treatment and not working under a contract that denies them the right to access equal pay.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate
“I negotiate all the time,” says Warwick. “I will say: ‘This is the second piece of business you’ve had from us this year’ and that can be effective in reducing the amount for the transfer fee, for example.”
The NASUWT recommends direct employment or consideration of clustering with other schools to employ a supply teacher directly. Where this is not possible, they advise schools to utilise their bargaining power.
“If a school is part of a MAT, then they have significantly more bargaining power,” Keates explains. “Or if you’ve got small clusters of schools, you should be getting together and telling the agencies that you will only work with them for a certain level of commission, and if they don’t want to engage on those terms, you won’t use them. The schools are the client – what the client wants should be what they get.
“Not all agencies are the same, so shop around and ask key questions in respect of the way they treat supply teachers. Some agencies adopt a more ethical approach, paying teachers to scale, or as close as, and these considerations should factor into a schools decision-making process.”
You can now request and book supply teachers from multiple agencies all in one place. Check out our new Supply Manager tool.