Supply teaching is changing out of all recognition

It takes a long time for reputations to alter, but the supply sector is being transformed, says Slava Kremerman

Slava Kremerman

supply teacher

School leaders across the country were crossing their fingers for good news in today’s Budget. But with this morning’s headlines pointing to funding to support tackling coronavirus and big ticket spending on infrastructure, the pickings look rather slim for education, bar perhaps the odd extra free school or two.

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School leaders have had difficult choices to make, and those choices will undoubtedly continue to be tricky for some time to come. Just last month, the chief executive of a major multi-academy trust (MAT) called on her colleagues across the trust to “look after every penny”. And while she was met with some opprobrium from those who pointed out that staff were already doing this and more – bringing in pens, paper and even toilet roll sometimes – she had a point.

One of the major spend items highlighted in that trust’s crosshairs (and I suspect many more, too) is spend on supply teachers. Every year, schools spend billions on supply – both for those days when a staff member is off sick, or sometime to cover vacancies schools are struggling to fill.

And, of course, it’s not just the cost that leaders rightly question. For time immemorial it would seem, supply teachers have had a bad rap when it comes to any value they add beyond just being an adult in the room.

What’s fascinating to me, though, is just how much this is changing on the ground. Reputations take aeons to evolve, but with the educators that we work with, I think it is happening little by little with supply.

The perception that people do supply only because "they can’t get a proper job" no longer holds true. The educators on our books come to us because they have chosen to. Increasing numbers are opting to work in this way because it suits them – it fits with their other commitments, be that a second job in another sector, further study or, of course, family responsibilities.

We have educators who are dancers; we have educators who are wrestlers; we have educators who are retired teachers and want to carry on having time in classroom but not be a permanent member of staff, with all that this brings.

And what we find is that, more and more, these educators are building long-term relationships with the schools that we place them in. They become something of an extended member of the family. They are regularly in school and, because of that – combined with their expertise – they are not subject to the caricature treatment of the supply teacher being cowed by a rowdy group of Year 9s on a Friday afternoon.

Just as supply teachers are changing so, too, are agencies. More and more, like in Zen, tech is being used to streamline the user experience for schools and supply staff. This change is as radical for the sector as Uber is for taxis and Airbnb for bed and breakfasts.

We know that the supply of temporary teaching staff can be achieved more efficiently and save the schools sector more and more cash – our experience would suggest millions of pounds per year.

I would be the first to welcome more money for schools, and I was delighted to hear the government pledges to "level up" funding for areas that have struggled previously. Even so, it’s right that schools should still be looking to use their budgets more effectively, and looking at how they manage emergency cover and supply staff is central to that.

Slava Kremerman is CEO of Zen Educate

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