Public-private partnerships are threatening the stranglehold that commercial agencies have on the supply teacher market, and beginning to drive down costs.
The biggest threats to the agencies' monopoly are emerging in London and the South-west. The Government Office for London has suggested that the capital's local authorities should set up their own pan-London agency.
Greater London Enterprise, an economic development company, is examining the feasibility of running such an agency on a self-funding basis. Other options include a capital-wide list of preferred private agencies willing to offer schools reduced rates.
Headteachers in London would welcome any long-term strategy that helped cut supply-cover costs, according to Tim Benson, a member of the National Association of Head Teachers' council.
"At present we are being ripped off left, right and centre. The agencies'
prices are very similar so it doesn't really matter who you go to," said Mr Benson, head of Nelson primary in east London.
In the South-west and parts of the South, competition from Go-teaching, a supply service set up by Devon County Council and a private-sector partner, is already giving commercial agencies a run for their money. The service pays teachers national rates, charging schools about pound;16 commission per supply day on top of that.
Agencies in the region usually charge pound;40-pound;50 a day, but some are now cutting their rates.
"You can't be absolutely certain about cause and effect, but certainly competition has sharpened in the South-west, and some agencies appear to be reducing their charges to try to stay in the market," said Denis Burn, managing director of Go-temping, the private-sector arm of the partnership.
Overseen by a "partnership board", which is directed by the county council, Go-teaching now works with 14 education authorities. These authorities, and the three main teacher unions, have seats on regional consultative boards, which monitor standards and keep track of charges to schools. These are kept low because Go-teaching has no branch network, operating instead from a call centre in Exeter.
It also uses the LEAs' own payroll systems rather than running its own. The supply teachers are employed on a sessional basis by whichever LEA they are working for at the time.
"This is music to our ears," said Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. "If they are employed by an agency, they cannot be part of the teachers' superannuation scheme and it is not an entitlement for them to be paid according to the pay and conditions document. So to get those two rights, their employer has to be either the local authority or, if it is a voluntary-aided school, the governing body."
Go-teaching is thinking of expanding into London, where it would charge schools commission of about pound;25 per supply day. Denis Burn believes that if the service got off the ground there, other agencies, which are said to pocket around pound;70 after paying their supplies, would have to cut their rates.
"Market rules would dictate that. I don't see how they could succeed otherwise," he said. However, TimePlan, the oldest commercial supply agency in the country and one of the biggest in London, has no plans to reduce its charges.
According to its managing director, Tish Seabourne, these reflect the costs of recruiting teachers, not only in Britain but from around the world.
Nor is the agency concerned about the prospect of competition.
"LEAs used to run things and they did it badly," said Ms Seabourne.
In the north-east of England, a small agency set up by former teachers is also making waves. STC Consortium, which runs the supply service for North Tyneside education authority, pays teachers at nationally-agreed rates and, like Go-teaching, does not charge a fee when schools offer them a job.
With a commission rate of pound;45 a day, its services do not come cheap.
But at the end of its first year's trading in July, the agency will split any profits it makes three ways between shareholders, teachers and client schools. So if there are profits, the commission that schools pay will effectively come down.
Susan Moore, one of the agency's directors, claims that some rival agencies have responded to STC's strategy by adopting supermarket-style sales techniques.
"They are saying they can get schools 'top of the tree' teachers for pound;150 a day, which means that the teachers are being paid well below what they should be paid," she said.
HOW MANY ARE THERE?
The number of supply teachers in England fell last year from 17,500 to 14,900, according to provisional figures from the Department for Education and Skills
In London there were 2,500 supply teachers, 71 per cent of them with agencies. In England as a whole 35 per cent of supply teachers came from agencies. Schools are spending pound;600 million a year on supply teachers, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated in a report published in November 2001.