With a shortage of job applicants, it’s only natural that schools are turning to supply agencies to plug the gaps. And when a temporary teacher makes an impact, you’d think moving them to a permanent role would be a no-brainer. For the school and the teacher, this practice of try-before-you-buy seems to be a good way for each party to ensure that they’ve found the right fit. So what’s the problem?
The transition from agency temp to permanent teacher can incur huge costs. Schools can be asked to pay up to 20 per cent of the new teacher’s salary, which could result in a “finder’s fee” of up to £10,000.
Compared with other methods of recruitment, this is a large outlay for schools already strapped for cash and struggling to find staff. But do the pros outweigh the cons?
We spoke to a range of leaders, teachers and industry experts to assess the situation.
How big a problem are agency finders fees?
It’s no secret that schools are increasingly relying on supply agencies owing to problems with permanent recruitment. This is an obvious quick fix for an ongoing problem. But are large fees preventing teachers from going on to take permanent roles?
“I think it’s difficult to quantify, but clearly enough schools are complaining about it for it to be something that needs to be addressed,” says John Howson, teacher recruitment expert and research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education.
“It probably existed in the past, particularly in the primary sector, but was hidden because authorities wrapped up all the costs and it wasn’t visible to the schools. As the money’s gone to the schools, all these extra costs have become transparent.
“If you’re going to have a finder’s fee, then try-before-you-buy becomes less financially attractive compared to taking a risk or employing someone on a one-year contract and then not reappointing them if they’re not suitable.”
According to Liam Roberts, managing director at teaching agency Vision for Education, the temp-to-perm option is one that a lot of schools are pursuing but he understands that some agencies may try to take advantage.
“It’s a popular option and something we’d often encourage a school to do,” says Roberts, “but a lot of our competitors do charge exorbitant fees.
“Everyone will have similar terms and conditions but these are adhered to at different levels. Some agencies will always try to see how much money they can get, whereas we’ve always been a little more flexible as we’d rather maintain a relationship with the school.”
What are the costs?
It’s hard to pin down a set cost when it comes to moving from temp to perm, with agencies and schools differing in their willingness to impose or negotiate a fee. Many will request a percentage of the teacher’s full-time salary, but it seems the fee actually paid is up for debate.
Michael Ferry, headteacher at St Wilfred's Secondary School in Crawley, West Sussex, has been asked to pay finders’ fees on more than one occasion. Having used an agency to cover a member of staff on maternity leave, he was hit with a large bill when offering her a permanent role.
“This particular supply person was excellent so I agreed that we would take her on a permanent contract for three days a week,” he says. “I appointed her, but the supply agency wanted 20 per cent of what would have been her full-time salary. In the end we paid £6,000. It started off as more but we whittled it down.”
Weija Chiang, a teacher in South London, moved from supply to a permanent role. Like many of her colleagues, she was the subject of a finder’s fee.
“We’ve had all our science technicians and a few teachers come through via agency,” she says, “and some of the most expensive finder’s fees have been several thousand pounds, perhaps £3,000-plus. These finder’s fees always precipitate a lengthy discussion with the senior leadership team about when to convert a person to a permanent role.
When it comes to the price schools eventually pay, there’s a broad spectrum of examples. The final figure appears to depend on the agency and a school’s ability to strike a deal, with some agencies happy for teachers to take permanent roles after a set time spent on a supply contract.
“What we’ve always tried to do is ask a school to keep somebody on supply for one term,” says Roberts. “After that, if you want to take the person on contract, then by all means do that. Then we’re happy, the teacher’s happy and the school’s had the member of staff spend some time in the classroom and build some rapport with the students.”
Striking a deal that works for all parties seems to be a sensible solution, but when agencies play hardball, having someone who can negotiate comes in handy.
Keziah Featherstone, an experienced headteacher and founder of #WomenEd admits to reluctantly paying agency finders’ fees, but only when the staff are good enough, and even then, she always negotiates to try to get a better deal for her school.
“You can normally negotiate with them,” she says. “It depends who’s in place at your school or if you’re working with a trust.
“If teachers are in charge, they don’t necessarily think about negotiating, but if you’ve got an HR professional or a trained business manager, they probably wouldn’t go into any contract without wanting to negotiate it.”
Is temp-to-perm a good recruitment option?
“There’s a huge amount of work that goes on to get good teachers on to your books as a recruitment agency,” says Tom Hadley, director of policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.
“Then there are identity checks, enhanced DBS checks, qualifications checks and reference checks. If it wasn’t the agency doing it then someone else would have to do it.”
Both Hadley and Roberts argue that recruiters are increasingly looking to work more closely with schools to support them in their recruitment, rather than being seen to be taking advantage.
“What we’re trying to do is see how our industry can add more value to schools,” says Hadley, “so we’re seeing more of our members giving advice and guidance to schools about recruiting, providing additional training for teachers.”
Featherstone is sceptical as to whether the fees attached to moving from temp to perm represent value for money.
“I don’t think the finders’ fees are representative of the amount of work people put into finding and recruiting high-quality staff,” she says.
“I think it’s very much driven by profit and, given the money that schools have is designed to improve the futures of children, I think that’s an incredible travesty.”
The truth is, no matter what method you use, the average cost of recruiting for a teaching vacancy is £3,000, so parting with cash when hiring seems almost inevitable. When compared with other methods of recruitment, the advantage of seeing a teacher in situ and having an agency carry out the necessary background checks does add value.
Roberts explains that being able to choose a teacher who fits in with a school’s ethos is a really valuable option.
“They might be a wonderful teacher with great references from other schools, but they might just not be the right fit for your school,” Roberts says.
"If you can find an agency that will give you a good temp-to-perm deal, that seems to me like an obvious choice, especially compared to however many thousands of pounds on fees you might have to pay before you really get to know the teacher.”
How else can you ensure a teacher is the right fit?
Moving a teacher from supply to permanent is a great way to ensure they are a good fit for your school, but there are other ways to find the missing piece to your staffroom puzzle.