Supply agencies have been accused of engaging in “exploitative” practices, with a Tes investigation uncovering a range of activities that union leaders, heads and teachers have said are to blame for suppressing wages while inflicting higher costs on schools.
The practices include unpaid “trial days”, moving staff into different roles before their employment rights kick in, and moving the best teachers around schools like chess pieces.
One of the practices uncovered by Tes involves unscrupulous supply agencies moving teachers between schools to avoid paying them more. Under Agency Worker Regulations (AWR), after working in a role for 12 weeks at the same school, a supply teacher should be paid as if they are in that role permanently.
However, one supply teacher in the Midlands told Tes that when she asked for pay parity, she was told “to think about it” and that there “might not be much work in future”.
“I later found out that a school had requested me for work and the agency had told them I was unavailable,” she said. “When I queried this, the agency stopped contacting me.”
'Working for free'
In a survey of supply teachers by the NASUWT teaching union this year, more than a fifth said that work had been cancelled on assignments at or approaching the 12-week period.
However, this is not the only reason why some supply teachers might move teachers between schools. Chris Keates, the NASUWT’s general secretary, said that some agencies were moving good teachers between different schools “like a piece on a chessboard” so that the agency can “maximise its exposure”.
Andrew Morris, the NEU union’s assistant general secretary, said a rising number of supply workers are being asked to undertake unpaid work as part of “trial days”, or asked to teach classes while employed in lower-paid roles.
“Increasingly, a number of teachers are expected to work for free, or being asked to teach when they are being employed as cover supervisors,” he said.
As well as seeking to reduce the amount they pay supply teachers, some heads are reporting that agencies are hiking the amount they charge schools.
Michael Ferry, headteacher of St Wilfred’s Secondary School in Crawley, West Sussex, said he believed the reason supply prices have risen is because agencies know the difficulties that schools are facing to recruit teachers.
“Agencies know we all have Ofsted, DfE, the local authority, looking over our shoulders at a time where the accountability of schools and headteachers has never been higher, so we’re desperate to ensure that we have specialist staff in place in key areas,” he said.
Mr Ferry was recently quoted £277 per day for a science teacher – £100 more than it would have cost him a couple of years ago.
'Lack of transparency'
Ms Keates said many supply teachers “don’t really know that they’re being exploited” because of “a real lack of transparency” from agencies. “And, by the same token, some schools don’t know how the supply teacher is being exploited or treated, because they want a body in a room,” she added.
However, Nick Bowles, head of stakeholder engagement at APSCo, which represents supply agencies, warned against forming “broad brush opinions” on the basis of “a few bad apples”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Teachers play a hugely important role in our society, and there are now more teachers in our schools than ever before – 15,500 more since 2010.
“All agencies providing supply teachers must comply with legislation on their pay and conditions. Any found not to be doing so can be investigated by the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.”
The parent company of Tes magazine owns three teacher supply agencies
This is an edited article from the 15 December edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here