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One-man supply solution

Steven Hastings explains how an early retiree sorted out a school's cover problem.

Keith Bowden knows all about the problems of supply teaching. At Wintringham school in Grimsby, north-east Lincolnshire, he was in charge of the cover list and faced the daily challenge of finding supply on demand. Two years after taking early retirement, he has returned, but this time his name is on top of the cover list for a different reason - he's the school's number one supply choice. And his return is not just an excuse to catch up with old friends and earn a bit of extra money. "It's an experiment," he says. "I want to find a better way of running things."

Following his early retirement, Mr Bowden worked for the Chalkface Project, taking resource material into schools across Lincolnshire. "In the staffroom, the regular teachers would all be dashing around, so I'd always find myself talking to supply teachers," he explains. "It was interesting to hear their views on the job."

By which he means their complaints. "It was clear they weren't being properly supported by the schools that employed them," he says. "It's not easy to work to someone else's agenda, especially if you don't get clear instructions. On top of that, you have to contend with the innate xenophobia of schoolchildren - they just don't like having strangers in the classroom."

These conversations set him thinking. He came up with an idea for a one-man pilot scheme and convinced his old school to give it a try. It may seem difficult to work up much enthusiasm for experiments with supply cover, but Mr Bowden is keen. "The deal is this. The school pays me a retainer, in return for which I arrive every day at 8.30 for the morning briefing. If I'm not needed I go home. If I'm needed for a couple of lessons, I'm free to go out of school between times. I'm paid the retainer and an hourly rate for the lessons I teach."

Under this system, the school gets someone on the spot every morning, avoiding a scramble to find cover at the last minute. The teacher gets a better deal by feeling part of the school and building positive relationships with permanent staff.

"I'm used to Wintringham, Wintringham is used to me - it's better for everyone. And the students get a familiar face at the front of the classroom."

So far, there have been very few days when Mr Bowden has not been required. Often he just covers the odd lesson - perhaps to allow staff time to apply for grants or catch up on paperwork. "It suits both parties," says Gwen Farmery, Wintringham's administration manager. "It's worth paying a small retainer because it saves a great deal of stress. If a teacher phones in sick at the last minute, it's no longer panic stations."

Mr Bowden admits his new model won't appeal to "career" supply teachers looking for a full day's pay every day. But he believes many teachers don't want to be working full-time and would be happy to trade off some money for the benefit of a steady retainer, a familiar school, and flexibility.

Above all, his experience working as a supply teacher has given him even more ideas about ways in which schools can help supply staff. Top of the list is an exercise in rebranding. "Supply teachers generally have a bad name," he says. "So let's change it. I prefer 'relief teachers'; it has more positive connotations."

Other conditions in his "relief teacher's charter" are that all supply staff should be in school in time for a morning briefing, and that they be given information about the school on arrival, a badge that identifies them as a relief teacher, and a chance to see the work they will be expected to teach.

And, at the end of the day, he advocates a questionnaire, giving feedback and allowing the school to make better provision in the future. "Supply agencies are becoming more professional, so schools should be professional about it, too. More and more money is being poured into supply and we need to make sure it's well spent. We want supply teachers to teach, rather than just being bodies at the front of the room - so let's give them a chance to teach well."

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