Stephen Manning talks to teachers who have taken the leap and love it
It's 8am. David Howse is up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for work. Except that he does not know where work will be today. He is waiting for the phone call from his supply agency telling him which school he will be in. It could even be in another county they know he is happy to drive that far. He gets the call in good time, grabs his box of tricks, jumps into his car and is off. Another 50 miles or so, another school.
For the past seven years, David, 59, has been a full-time supply teacher in primary schools across Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, driving great distances if need be.
Probably his biggest assignment was a daily drive 100 miles each way for a month's supply work in Woking, Surrey. The 50-mile drive to Rugby he did for a term is more like the norm.
But he thinks little of such sacrifice to seek out work, or perhaps he just likes to spend time in his Toyota. On several occasions he has even set off from his home in Evesham, Worcestershire, before he knew he had a job that day, waiting for the call en route.
But his have-lesson-plan-will-travel attitude is understandable. "I was in one school for 20 years and I now feel perhaps that was too long," he says. "As a supply teacher, you get to see into lots of schools, lots of different experiences and ways of working and I think that's invaluable. In some sense, I think supply teachers are better than Ofsted inspectors in finding out what's really going on out there."
He feels lucky he now gets longer stints and has managed to avoid working for private agencies, which isn't so easy nowadays. As David recalls, local authorities used to dish out supply work until the Government pushed them towards going through agencies, partly to streamline what they did. He says the proliferation of agencies has brought about its own problems, including teachers going into schools before their Criminal Records Bureau checks have been made.
"When I first went down the supply route it was hard. For every day I didn't have work, I would set off with lots of CVs, calling into schools personally. I think that helped and now I've worked in something like 75 or 80 schools during that time."
He has found supply suits him well, yet it was not a deliberate choice. David has been teaching since 1973 but, following a divorce, he felt he wanted to leave the profession. But after a spell as a sales rep for a map company, he found he missed teaching. Efforts to secure a suitable full-time post were not fruitful, however, as David found himself competing with much younger and much cheaper teachers.
"One interviewer even told me I was the best candidate, but they needed to appoint someone newly qualified to match the age of the other teachers," he says. "So I was struggling against ageism, as well as price-ism."
David thinks there is less work now in supply, mainly due to primaries' use of teaching assistants. But, in spite of difficult times, he says he has managed to maintain nearly full-time day-to-day employment.
He goes on six to 10 training courses a year. "By and large I think I am every bit as up-to-date as the full-time staff. I'm now brushing up my French I'm rusty but ready. I'm always thinking: what can I offer a school?"
In the classroom, it's good to have tricks up your sleeve and David's speciality is puppetry to illustrate numeracy lessons. "The parrots count numbers in squawks. For higher numbers, one parrot squawks in hundreds, another in tens, with a bow of the head for zero. Then the kids get to handle the parrots themselves." He has even taken a training course in puppetry.
To some, it might seem a curious choice, to opt for supply instead of management. But for David, it seems right.
"Financially, I may have been better off continuing down the road towards headship, but I don't think I'd have enjoyed everything that goes with it nowadays, the paperwork, the management responsibilities. I wanted to stay in front of a class."
He is not alone in this. Many supply teachers are at the advanced end of their teaching careers, finding a new lease of life in what they did at the start.
One is Terry [not his real name], a former headteacher at a small primary school in the West Country, teaching in class three days a week and carrying out leadership duties the other two. Now 57, he had been a headteacher for nine years, having taught since 1971.
"I was struggling to balance the different parts as well as my own life," he says.
"The crunch came when I forgot to go to my granddaughter's Christmas production in her school because I'd been too busy racing around sorting out our one. I decided my priorities were not right."
He thought about switching careers but employment agencies advised him he would get no job satisfaction at entry level in another field because of his skills. So he tentatively decided to try supply.
He found that, initially, it wasn't merely a sideways step. "They started me on lower pay than I was used to, but this was temporary while they were seeing how easy it was to sell me. When the agency takes a new teacher on, the references aren't relevant it's almost as if it's a different job altogether."
Clearly, though, experience like Terry's ultimately counts for something and he rapidly found himself with plenty of work an average of 180 days a year, not far off the maximum of 195, with a reasonable amount of work in the traditionally dead months of July and September.
Stepping before a class can be exhilarating, if unpredictable. The level of planning left behind by the absent teacher varies hugely, often there's none at all. But that's not always a bad thing.
"I don't like endless notes 9.15 do this, 9.45 teach that because you are too busy reading notes to concentrate on the children," he says. "So what I'll do is look at the outcome and make sure I get to that."
Indeed, far from being daunted by continually facing new pupils in unfamiliar situations, Terry views it more like a touring showman, wowing a new audience with tried-and-tested material.
"Children are children. All 11-year-olds are pretty much the same, it's nothing to be that anxious about.
"I have repeated lessons in different schools on consecutive days and got the same sort of reaction."
The supply route has given Terry time for other pastimes, such as running and, ever the teacher, a bit of officiating in club fixtures.
But for many younger teachers, supply teaching seems something you do if you can't get a full-time job. But it can also be precisely the crash course you need for your chosen career, as it was for Katherine Hall. At 23, she has just started her first permanent teaching post in Birmingham, having completed the first three terms of her NQT year entirely via the supply route.
This was partly because she couldn't find a permanent job when she qualified. But she could also see the benefits of getting more experience from a number of different schools because she felt two PGCE placements weren't really enough.
"I'm really glad I did the year of supply first," she says. "I got to work in lots of schools, about 15 in all across the area, and soon learned where I'd like to work and where I wouldn't. I also got two handy references from headteachers during that year, which I think really helped me get my current job."
It also gave her a ready-for-anything approach which comes in useful.
"I found it was always best to go into a school assuming nothing would be left for you. Some teachers are great at leaving notes, but a lot are not or just haven't the time.
"But it has made me more aware as a teacher and so I always try to leave reasonable notes if I happen to be off school.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT
Supply teachers should be paid by the day, matching what they would earn as full-time teachers, with a year being 195 days, so 1195th of an annual salary, according to age and experience.
However, according to David, some counties continue to pay by the hour and just "contact time", excluding marking and assessment. This can amount to five-and-a- quarter hours per day (the quarter being a break). This is despite the fact that two years ago, Wendy Morris, a supply teacher, won a landmark legal ruling against Cheshire County Council for underpayment, establishing that a day should be not less than 6.48 hours.
HOW SUPPLY ADDS UP
There are an estimated 40,000 supply teachers in England, working an average of 2.9 days a week in six different schools over the course of a year, according to the most recent survey undertaken by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan University and published in 2006 by the (then) Department for Education and Skills.
Seventy-one per cent are female, which broadly corresponds with the national teacher profile ** But supply teachers are older than the average staff teacher half are aged 50 plus, compared with 26 per cent of staff teachers
Fifty-six per cent mainly get work directly from schools, 31 per cent through private supply agencies and 9 per cent through local authority supply service
Why do they do it? Thirty-two per cent because it fits with childcare and family commitments, 26 per cent to supplement their pensions; 22 per cent because they could not get permanent posts.
Source: The Recruitment, Deployment and Management of Supply Teachers in England, May 2006, Department for Children, Schools and Families.