These days there is plenty of demand for supply. The question is, should you be filling it? If you are working - or plan to work - as a supply teacher, you must bear in mind the insecurity and confusion generated by the recent stipulation that NQTs can only do four terms on short-time placements without induction. After that, you could be out of a job.
It is a stipulation that is worrying many NQTs who have found supply useful or even a career-saver. It also causes confusion among schools and colleges, with many not understanding or even being aware of the four-term ruling.
The fact is that not everyone sees filling in for absent teachers as a useful option for NQTs. The National Union of Teachers frowns on supply. "It is not a good way to start your teaching career," says a spokeswoman. "A full-time post is the most beneficial as it gives teachers proper planned induction and the support of their colleagues." The DfEE takes the same line: "It is in the best interests of NQTs for them to take up inductable posts as soon as they possibly can."
Some local education authorities, too, will not put NQTs on their supply lists as they consider them too inexperienced.
But there are many reasons why casual work may suit NQTs - filling in time before a full-time job or before going abroad; trying out a variety of jobs before settling down to one; or allowing flexibility to fulfil family commitments. And there are also teachers who see supply as a career - those, for example, with alternative jobs, actors and musicians, who use teaching as a safety net.
And sometimes NQTs simply have no alternative. Inner cities have acute teacher shortages but, in some other areas, teachers are staying in their jobs and there are few vacancies, especially in primary schools.
There may also be other factors. Last May, a TES editorial suggested the work and cost of induction "appears to be making some schools reluctant to take on new teachers, especially where Government funding isn't permeating the bureaucracy layers", drawing attention to the fact that after four terms without induction NQTs may be out of the profession for good.
Since then, the Government has offered help to schools to induct NQTs. Under revised Standards Fund arrangements for 20012002, schools can claim a fixed amount for the induction of each eligible NQT they employ. This will be pound;1,000 per term, with more payable, if LEAs choose, to those NQTs whose four terms on supply have expired.
The department now appears confident that NQTs can find jobs. "There are vacancies in all regions which will enable those coming off supply to complete their induction," says a spokesman. "In a time of teacher shortages, we do not believe competent NQTs will have any difficulty finding inductable posts."
The use of the word "competent" may sting many NQTs. And they may also take issue with the statement "there are vacancies in all regions".
Kathryn Mayes has been working as a supply teacher for more than a year in Gloucestershire and Bristol since qualifying from the University of West of England. She purposely went on to supply because she has a three-year-old son. "I didn't want to let anyone down; I wanted to be a parent first and teacher second."
She enjoys the work, and there is no shortage of it. "I could often be in six different schools at the same time, such is the demand." But late last year, she completed four terms and now faces being out of work, since there are no jobs at key stages 1 or 2 in her area. "I've been trying since September 1999 to get a contract, but either there aren't the jobs, or schools are unwilling to induct a supply teacher who won't be with them long."
Many of those who trained with her, she says, are in the same position:
"Everyone's panicking over it."
A South Gloucestershire LEA spokesman confirmed that schools "were being swamped with applications from NQTs, which indicates there are lots more applicants than jobs". This seems to be so in areas throughout the South-west and in some parts of Wales - though, as there is no induction in Wales, NQTs there are not feeling the same kind of pressure.
Local management of schools and fair trading legislation have changed the supply industry in recent years. Schools can now choose between LEA supply lists, agencies and their own teacher contacts, and have increasingly turned to agencies because they offer them a quicker service. Rather than check on the LEA list and then call a teacher, they can make one call to an agency.
Supply is now a multi-million pound business, dominated by agencies, many of whom have offices throughout the UK. Some LEAs have negotiated contracts with supply agencies through which they provide exclusive supply-teacher cover for their area.
For the teacher, there are pros and cons to both the LEA list or agency route. Though a few LEAs are proactive in finding supply teachers work, in most areas teachers have to register themselves on the list and then approach schools - for example, by circulating a letter and CV and mentioning that they are on the LEA supply list. The advantage is that teachers are covered by the terms of the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document which lays down statutory rules about pay and conditions of service.
Many supply teachers find it quicker and easier to go to an agency, which does the work for them. But agencies usually pay less than dictated by the nationally-agreed pay rates, and nationally-agreed conditions of service don't necessarily apply.
If you do go to an agency, consider these points:
* Different agencies pay different rates, so shop around.
* Does the agency perform police, medical and other checks, which means schools will have more confidence in them?
* Can the agency get you regular work of the type you require and in the area you want?
* Do they offer free training sessions for supply teachers? Not many do but, where it happens, it's a big bonus.
* Do they provide evaluations from schools so that you can know what you are doing right and what mistakes you are making?
* How proactive are they in finding positions in which you can be inducted?
Whichever route you take, remember that supply teachers do not have the security of a continuing contract of employment enjoyed by their permanent colleagues. There is no holiday pay and, usually, no sick pay or maternity leave.
Supply teaching is not automatically pensionable, though you can make special arrangements to have your service made pensionable.
Steven Park has been working as a supply teacher in North Lanarkshire since qualifying three years ago, and is well aware of the disadvantages. "I do not have the access to professional development courses and in-service courses that a permanent teacher has," he says. "I dislike the insecurity and never knowing what I will be doing from day to day. I find that my lesson planning skills get rusty - the formal written ones - although my improvisation has improved immensely."
But you should weigh all that against the variety and independence supply teaching provides. Kathryn Mayes says: "It's been brilliant for me. I trained only for key stage 1 and had very little experience of key stage 2.
"Now, over one year later, I have taught from nursery up to Year 6. The only part I dislike is the insecurity of not getting paid during school holidays and the last-minute calls. But how many jobs do you know whereby, if you don't like a school, you don't have to go again!" But, perhaps, from an NQT's point of view, the most important factor to bear in mind is induction: getting inducted, whether on supply or in a permanent post, is crucial if you want to stay in teaching or at least maintain the ability to move freely between different educational sectors.
The DfEE Guidance 9000 "The Induction Period for Newly Qualified Teachers" is available on the DfEE website, as is document 796, "Legal Requirements Relevant to the Use of Supply Teachers". www.dfee.gov.uk. Guidance notes for supply teachers is also available from the National Union of Teachers website at: www.nut.org.uk.