WHEN assistant head Bob Chandler agreed to sign a registration form with an obscure teacher supply agency, he thought no more of it.
After all, his school, St James' Catholic high school, in the north London borough of Barnet, had no intention of using any staff from Peach Education.
So it came as a shock when last month the school received a demand for nearly pound;120,000.
But St James' is not alone. An investigation by The TES shows that Peach Education has sent similar bills to schools across the South-east, schools which have never used any of the agency's supply teachers.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation and St James' school are calling for a Department of Trade and Industry inquiry.
The Department for Education and Skills is so concerned by the agency it has now referred the case to the investigations arm of the DTI which regulates the teacher supply business. Peach Education has also attracted the attention of trading standards officers in the South-east.
The agency denies any wrong-doing, and claims the unusual terms of its contract allow it to charge for unused supply teacher days. St James', however, describes its behaviour as disgraceful, and is strenuously resisting the demands.
"In June last year I agreed to meet Peach Education. I told them we normally get our supply teachers from big agencies and were unlikely to use them," said Mr Chandler.
"Their guy pestered me and pestered me until, as much to get rid of him as anything, I signed what I thought was a registration form. There was no talk of contract or terms and conditions. We heard nothing from them for a year and never used any of their supply teachers.
"Then on June 25 we received a faxed demand for pound;118,300 for 700 unused supply teaching days charged at pound;169 a day. It is disgraceful.
There should be an investigation."
After being contacted by The TES, Peach Education faxed a second invoice in which it admitted a paperwork error and suggested settling at pound;32,500. Richard Gold, the school's solicitor, said: "We know of a number of cases involving Peach Education. Each is a little different, but all centre on a contract that Peach Education says was entered into for the supply of temporary staff with an obligation by the school to pay whether or not the teachers have been used."
Mark Edwards, 44, Peach Education director, denied his firm was acting improperly. "We were not dealing with some general admin staff. We were dealing with the assistant head and it was quite clear they were entering into a contract for teacher supply days.
"It is quite incorrect to say we pestered them into signing. If the school has a problem it should get in touch with me."
Mr Edwards refused to say how many schools or teachers were on its books and could not name a school which might recommend the firm.
St James' solicitors are also representing a secondary school in Hertfordshire which is in dispute with Peach Education.
Lawyers for Surrey County Council know of three similar cases involving Peach Education, one with a demand for pound;307,000. Only one of the schools has used any teachers supplied by Peach Education. The county's trading standards officers have been made aware of the concerns.
Bob Wicks, chairman of education at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: "If there is evidence of wrong-doing, we would actively encourage the DTI to look into it as a matter of urgency."
A DfES spokeswoman said: "Together with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation we have introduced a quality mark scheme that badges those agencies which have been providing a quality service for schools."
Peach is not an REC member and does not have the DfES quality mark.
A DTI spokeswoman could not comment on specific firms but the department's guidelines mean an investigation is likely.
Peach Education gives its mailing address as 7 Mount Mews, Hampton, south-west London - the offices of an unrelated firm providing postal and call-receipt services.
Mr Edwards, who is registered at the same address with Companies House, signed the disputed contract with St James' on behalf of Peach Education.
Peach Education Ltd was incorporated in March this year and has a registered address in Glossop, Derbyshire.
The two company secretaries are David Hope, who gives an address in Alicante, Spain, and a firm which acts as secretary for another 98 businesses.