Tried to get a long-term supply teacher lately? One of my teachers has gone into hospital for an emergency operation, and she's likely to be away for a whole term. An ideal opportunity, then, for a supply teacher who wants some steady work, instead of going from school to school on a daily or weekly basis, with all the problems that entails.
We've never found getting supply teachers difficult. Indeed, even though we're in a "difficult inner-city area", it's quite usual for supply teachers to compliment us on the children's behaviour and the friendly working atmosphere, and most want to come back. We have five supply teacher agencies on our books, but in practice we usually only have to call on the first one; possibly the second in the flu season. Until now, that is. It's like the situation we faced a decade ago.
Then, in the pre-agency days of the Inner London Education Authority, you rang Ilea for one of the supply teachers on its books, and Ilea footed the bill. This was fine in summer, when your staff were fit and well and bounced into work every day. In winter it was a different matter and, as the list of supply teachers on Ilea's books was finite, you jumped in pretty early if you needed cover. If somebody coughed more than once, or looked a bit shivery, I always rang the office to make sure I got in with a chance. After all, it was easy to cancel if a supply wasn't needed.
Eventually, the authority decided to service the schools with the greatest need first, and to have a hope of getting a supply you had to say that at least two of your teachers were out. My staff tend to crawl in even if they seem at death's door, but I remember the horror of a winter Monday morning when five of my teachers were away. "Sorry," the person on the other end of the phone said. "You obviously qualify, but we can only send you one person. She doesn't speak much English and she's only available for the morning. Other schools have higher priorty today I'm afraid." It seemed unbelievable; I assumed heart attacks had decimated the staff in other local schools. As soon as we were given control of our own budgets, agencies sprang up like mushrooms in a damp field. There was a ready market, and they were quick to recognise it. Now, I could not only get a supply teacher, but, if necessary, half a dozen in one go. At a price, of course - the agencies knew a good thing when they saw one and took a sizeable cut.
And headteachers soon found out which agencies supplied them with "quality" people - and which didn't. One sent me a woman who crept into the staffroom after everybody had gone and photocopied vast quantities of work to keep her going in the next 10 schools she was to visit. Another gave me a teacher who devastated a classroom, on a day I was out on a course, by sitting down in a corner and telling the children they could do whatever they liked, within reason, as long as they didn't come and bother her. She then set about completing her crossword. Fortunately, the agency I finally settled on continually sent me first-rate people, including a delightful young Australian who not only completed an excellent topic with a demanding Year 6 class, but presented it all in a fascinating 45-minute assembly. The children later told me they had behaved particularly well because she had promised to tell them what was going to happen for the next two months in Neighbours.
And now, this term, it's been impossible to find a supply willing to stay. Not just from one agency, but from all five on my list. The reason? The teachers don't want all the paperwork that goes with the job these days. They don't want to attend endless staff meetings or write individual work plans, targets, huge daily lesson outlines and weekly reports. They just want to teach effectively, and they can do that by working a few days in a school at a time.
Sound familiar? If things carry on the way they are, perhaps we'll all be thinking of going on supply.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, London.email:firstname.lastname@example.org