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Make it a pool of talent

Improving the quality of supply staff would make a vital contribution to raising standards, says Gary Smith.

SOME 20 years ago, educational recruitment almost ground to a halt as the Government grappled with threatened bankruptcy. Understandably, local government was placed under severe financial constraint, with teacher recruitment an early casualty.

The teaching boom effectively burst during 1977. By the following year the country was being supported by loans from the International Monetary Fund. No longer were teachers assured employment on graduation. And general unemployment rose year by year from 1975.

Turning a negative into a positive, education was presented with a golden opportunity to select the most capable, and this was attempted by the former Strathclyde Region - managing about half of the national teaching service - where headteachers were asked for reports on probationary teachers. This should have been the start of a general improvement through the selection of quality staff following extended trial periods in the classroom.

Unfortunately, as heads began to request that competent staff be offered contract extensions, or better still permanent posts, the central bureaucracy decided that all supply teachers had to be stood down at the end of each session and reallocated to new schools.

This in turn created an elongated supply chain with only those teachers able to sustain unemployment between contracts retained in the supply loop. In short, teacher selection came to be by time served rather than capability, experience or qualifications.

This approach was subsequently endorsed by the teacher unions and in so doing effectively removed the management of recruitment from the employers - the regional councils - to the unions. Unfortunately, this process did not always work in practice and turned into a bureaucratic lottery depending on local administrative competency and location rather than professional judgment and assessment.

Supply lists were created and operated. Unpublished, these were short on professional transparency and public accountability. Moreover, selection based on time served may have denied the system the highest calibre of teachers, particularly as headteachers' comments were perpetually ignored into the early 1990s. During this period the supremacy of Scottish education declined when quantified against comparable nations. Whether these two events are connected is an open question.

Certainly, the opportunity existed for competitive, ability-based employment rather than employment based on random economic circumstances favouring those able to afford the luxury of supply teaching pending permanent employment - which id not always arrive. The process was also not robust enough to meet strict equal opportunities criteria, suffering as it did from weaknesses of inherent indirect discrimination.

For example, by the late eighties and early nineties this approach weighted service in supply teaching to a greater extent than experience, capability and academic qualifications. Consequently, heads' comments still fell on deaf ears when they identified good supply teachers. Clearly, the time had come for a change.

Devolved school management handed responsibility for budgets and short-term supply staffing to heads. This has now assumed a pivotal role in the present Government's pursuit of world-class education, with accompanying emphasis on quality assurance and revised inspection arrangements. Had devolution of staffing control not already been in place, the Government would have had to ensure it before attempting to hold the headteacher to account for school standards.

A question mark remains over arrangements for longer-term staff absence, particularly while schools are trying to raise standards. Having provided educational policy advice for all governments since 1989, I recall briefing a few district councillors interested in understanding key education issues during the interim period of local government reorganisation.

I covered the problem of supply teaching and suggested they arrange for their new education authority to establish from the outset a permanent supply staff pool, formulated from analysis of statistical data for their area during the 18 years of the regional council.

This would ensure permanent employment for future supply teachers, raising both the commitment and quality of cover. The proposal was duly placed before their newly appointed director of education, only to be set aside.

In view of the current drive on standards I was therefore not surprised to note - five years on - two recent advertisements in The TES Scotland. East Dunbartonshire was seeking permanent supply teachers for a pool arrangement, and East Renfrewshire wanted to establish a permanent supply pool - as a pilot project. Such measures should contribute to the Government's raising standards initiative. They represent an important step in the modernisation of Scottish education, but no more than devolved school management in the early nineties.

Why has it taken almost 25 years to get this far?

Gary Smith has worked on employment initiatives, held a promoted post in further education and taught in primary schools here and abroad. Last year he served in a quality assurance role with the modernising public services group in the Cabinet Office. The views here are his own.

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