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Life as seen from the supply side

Laura Peters has some advice for the London agency that aims to provide temporary teachers in Strathclyde. No doubt the offer by TimePlan, a London-based independent agency, to provide supply cover for schools in Scotland, will be regarded with suspicion by teachers, and their unions.

At the very least, the agency will have to ensure teachers a satisfactory daily rate, and guarantee that terms and conditions of employment will not be reduced. Once these criteria are met, the independent agency could feasibly be successful in challenging the local authorities' monopoly in this area.

This could also encourage councils formerly in Strathclyde Region to begin a fresh start with their new council status in dealing with supply teachers. Although it aims, in time, to expand throughout Scotland, it is the Strathclyde councils that TimePlan is initially focusing on.

As a primary teacher in Glasgow, I remember feeling contempt when I contacted the local authority office for short-term supply work. The first problem was getting through on the phone. The line tended to be permanently engaged. This problem was shared by schools and teachers alike. On the few occasions I did get through, the voice, which sounded as if it should still be at school, made it clear that it would phone me when I was required. Had I waited for this to happen I am confident that I would still be waiting.

Sometimes the voice gave wrong details of jobs available, and offered you work on the other side of the planet even though you had explained where you lived and your feasible parameters of employment. It also skillfully offered you work, which it expected you to accept, after you had just accepted work for the same day from its colleague.

The second problem was when the voice called you and you were unable to work. It had no empathy with mothers of young children, who could not, at the drop of a hat, run to the first school that required a teacher. There would be a loud rustle of paper at the other end of the phone - no doubt your form bundled to the bottom of a pile with a black mark - and the mention that it would have to tell Miss Phillips (their heidie).

Next was the difficulty of working for different districts. I consistently searched for work in the district or authority of my locale. I politely badgered this office. I phoned it regularly; sent in the necessary forms; pleaded for work. I was never offered any work from them. As a result I worked further away. From my experience, once a teacher accepted work in one authority, it was unlikely that heshe would be offered work in another. It remains to be seen whether the same will apply to teachers registered with TimePlan - if councils will give preference to teachers who are on their lists, but not registered elsewhere.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm well aware that authority offices were under a great deal of strain. Like the schools to which they responded, they were short-staffed too. Office staff were not keen to give you their name, but regularly misread yours. Even if you managed a conversation, and felt that the next time you called it would be easier as you knew who to ask for, you would be disappointed. By the time you next phoned there would be a departmental shuffle of voices. The one that you wanted would have been moved.

I also know that supply teachers come in all shapes and forms. They include the newly graduatedretired; pushyeasy-going; eager to pleaseindifferent; nervousconfident. These teachers often feel like a piece of lost baggage as they wander round schools. There are staff rooms where no one asks the supply teacher his or her first name; where great care has been taken over which seat he or she can sit on.

Headteachers' interest is also varied. Some offer a cup of coffee and take time to get acquainted with the newly arrived teacher. Others delegate that responsibility to a promoted member of staff. I have heard of heads who scarcely seem to know they have a supply teacher in their school and certainly do not know the name of the teacher even if they have been filling in for months.

Whatever their attributes, supply teachers deserve respect from their colleagues and superiors in schools and from faceless clerical staff in offices. Many of today's teachers rely on supply work for vital experience, or to accrue days for eligibility of a permanent post.

They deliver an important service. They often arrive in a school which is in a state of chaos arising from teachers' absences. Agencies and local authorities, need to take this into account. I hope that such competition will produce helpful office staff everywhere, who understand the problems that schools and teachers face.

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