Ask any supply teacher and they will tell you, business during the summer of 2003 was slow. But for thousands of them, "summer" arrived at Easter this year: their phones stopped ringing as demand for classroom cover dried up. The financial squeeze meant schools preferred to save cash and find other ways to cope with staff absentees. This term, many supply teachers are still awaiting the call.
Since the mid-1990s, teaching agencies have mushroomed. From the nationwide recruitment service offered by the bigger players to the lone former head serving the needs of a few schools, the last 10 years have been a period of substantial growth. But tighter belts have led to a change in market strategies and to closer liaison between heads and supply agency executives. The name of the game for agencies today is to match their services more directly with their clients' needs.
Richard Marshall, managing director of The Education Network and a former teacher, explained how things have changed over the past two years. "20023 went quieter than the year before. Schools were badly hit by the teacher shortage and, not wishing to be bitten twice, wanted to do something about it.
"Larger secondary schools recruited more teachers - above and beyond those needed to supply the timetable - while others had a floating deputy head.
So they became less reliant on outside agencies. And since the announcement of funding for 20034 , there has been a further dropping off of business.
"In 20012, teachers were phoning us and saying they were being paid extra by a rival agency and would we match it? If we hadn't, we would have had no teachers. But this is no longer the case, schools are much more picky."
With their small budget increases already swallowed up by rises in teachers wages, national insurance contributions, pensions, savings are being sought everywhere as decisions are based on efficiency and price.
The larger supply agencies have responded quickly to this altered market place. Fiona Eldridge, chairman of Teaching Personnel, acknowledges the market is more competitive. "Last year, we experienced a quieter period than in previous years. It started before Easter but was exacerbated by budget cuts and uncertainty about how much of the budget would be available. The Teacher Training Agency and the Government's recruitment drive also led to more teachers entering the profession and to schools with a more stable staffing situation," she says.
"We will need to look carefully at our strategy and how we approach the business so we are less centrally organised but able to change tack and work more closely with LEAs."
She is positive about future prospects for the larger agencies, which she thinks will be better equipped to survive in a market where schools and local education authorities are looking to broker better deals.
Protocol, another big player, recently commissioned an independent study which revealed the recruitment demand for teachers remains strong. Its marketing director, Matthew White, says his agency has made significant moves to make its service more attractive to schools. "We have set up a partnership scheme with Argos - each time a school uses a Protocol teacher they earn stars which can be exchanged for Argos goods," he said.
"A shortage of money may mean schools are not able to buy products such as TVs, staffroom kettles or equipment for its various department. By hiring one of our teachers they get something to show for it. It is our way of giving something back. Schools are contacting us who did not use us before."
David Rose, communications manager with Select, also believes adding value is key to maintaining a market share in a changing climate. "These days, schools expect agencies to hold a DfES Quality Mark to ensure there are standards for recruiting and dealing with people. I expect the quality issue will be even bigger in the future.
"There are a huge number of agencies out there, yet there are no barriers to entry, and start-up costs are low. We are likely to see a consolidation with only quality providers surviving: that is those holding Quality Marks, offering training and support for teachers, offering value for money by ensuring the quality of teachers, recognising the need for more teaching assistants and, finally, offering an extensive quality recruitment service.
Heads take a lot of time over this. Those not adding value will be weeded out."
In today's market, supply teachers who represent real value will be the ones most in demand. With more schools working in clusters to share staff and spread cover duties and costs, flexibility of working will be highly prized.
For David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, market pressures could bring benefits. "Heads need to be much more aggressive when it comes to supply agencies. For too long they have been delivering an expensive product without offering appropriate quality assurance. It should be possible to provide good quality cover at a reasonable cost.
"There is concern over the quality of supply teachers. More heads are questioning the value of supply cover because sometimes it does not amount to more than child-sitting."
With many teaching assistants set to enter the system in the next few years, possibly to provide greater classroom cover, the market could get tougher.
And many believe that the biggest challenge facing schools and heads this year will be implementing the workload reduction agreement. This includes a 38-hour limit on the amount of cover a teacher can be required to perform during one academic year.
John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers believes a reduction in the use of supply cover is already policy under the Skills Workforce agreement - what he sees as a bid to replace supply teachers with cover supervisors.
"This shouldn't be a bad time for supply teachers - taking on a new class is one of the toughest jobs in the business - but in reality it is. There is a crisis because the Government got its sums wrong."