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Dear Ted

I'm on long-term cover but have to pay for my Inset days and courses - usually by losing a day's pay. Do you think supply teachers are treated badly?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email: dear.ted@tes.co.uk

Ted says

Supply teachers certainly do get a raw deal in many cases. A few years ago, I carried out one of the few research studies of this unique group and I am full of admiration for what they do. They need all the usual professional skills, plus the extra ones of being able to step into any location, subject or age group, often at short notice and without insider knowledge of the pupils.

I would like to see a charter for supply teachers, to put their work on a proper footing. They should be entitled to training (they often miss out), free key documents (many have to buy their own), and standard salary progression (some had difficulty getting their pound;2,000 threshold bonus because they did not "belong" anywhere).

Schools should always make sure they treat their itinerant colleagues as humanely as possible. Many are regarded as anonymous ("The supply's sitting in the waiting room"; "Are you a proper teacher, Miss?"), so ask their name as soon as they arrive. They are often badly briefed about a class's ability range, recent work, temperaments or behaviour problems, and are merely told: "Just let them carry on with their work, they'll know what to do," so children object to spending the lesson writing on their own.

When schools are desperate to hire any human body not on a life support machine to supervise a teacherless class, they may sometimes grab a supply teacher ill-matched to the subject. Pupils then complain that the person cannot answer questions on Romeo and Juliet because she is a geography specialist, although she at least knows where Verona is.

Supply teachers are a precious asset, used on a daily basis in many schools, covering absence and staff shortages, and it is scandalous when they are not treated as such.

You say

Put part-time supply teachers on contract

After qualifying, I worked part-time, then moved to north Devon and "supplied" in primary schools. I have been treated in a variety of ways, from one school where I had to pay for a cup of coffee and plan a whole day for a Year 5 class with no hint of a topic or clue about their ability (par for the course, I suppose), to another with fully planned days, supportive staff and free and abundant coffee. In Devon, you get paid per minute, so it is worth finding out how many hours and minutes each school can offer you, and going for the most (key stage 2 pays better than key stage 1 - 5.42 hours compared to 5.30 in the same school). Not much difference, but tot it up over a year.

I'm lucky to have found a school that gives me regular supply, tells me about Inset and encourages me to join in (unpaid, though). But at least I'm benefiting from some training. Primary schools should employ a supply teacher on contract, possibly part-time. This would work for both parties - the school would never fail to find cover, the supply teacher would have a steady income, and the school would be more likely to invest in professional development.

Gillian Ashcroft, email

Be positive - it's a learning curve

You should not have to pay for your Inset, because the whole school benefits. But this is not the reality. The fact is, many decisions are based on the limited budget available. Even though staff members seem to be getting preferential treatment, it's worth remembering that they may have had similar experience to yours in the past. See your education and training as an investment in the future, despite the issue of funding. Whether you continue to do long-term supply cover or change to working full-time, professional and personal development will pay dividends in the end. Do not be discouraged - being positive works every time.

Audrey Farley, Birmingham

Desperate to update skills

Supply teachers - or those, like me, who are on short-term contracts - often find it difficult, or near impossible, to keep our skills updated. Although I have been teaching consistently during the past couple of years, I have found it impossible to take part in the New Opportunities Fund ICT training for primary teachers. This means I could be lambasted for being unable to deliver the curriculum effectively. It's ironic: while many permanent teachers are reluctant to complete NOF, some of us hard-working, committed temporary teachers would love to have the chance.

Eileen Michalczuk, email

Support your supply colleagues

Supply teachers certainly do get a raw deal. They play such an important role in our education system yet they are not held in any regard by students and, worse still, teaching colleagues. Permanent teachers forget what it's like to meet children for the first time, to set rules, rewards and consequences, to establish a rapport, and so on. They forget, too, how the well-oiled machine of students, classroom routines and expected behaviour falls at the wayside because they are not there. Supply teachers have to deal with this as best as they can, as they are unaware of support systems and procedures.

It saddens me to see my colleagues shrug their shoulders at the way "the supply" couldn't handle the class. Supply teachers need our support. They are filling a need in our work force. Give some respect!

Melissa Christie, south London

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