Ever since David Pike qualified to teach art, design and technology three years ago, he and his wife Janet have been struggling to make ends meet. For the first two years, David could only find occasional supply teaching work, and when Janet was made redundant from her administrative job last year, the couple had their house repossessed and moved into private rented accommodation with their two young children.
Things finally seemed to be looking up for them when David started doing regular supply teaching at a Leeds school last September. They still relied on benefits to get by during the school holidays but David had no trouble claiming either housing benefit or the Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) over the Christmas, February half-term and Easter breaks.
So when he went to his local job centre in the middle of Leeds to sign on for the recent half-term holiday, he was surprised to hear that he did not qualify for the allowance and that the benefits he had received during previous school holidays had been paid by mistake. Although he insisted he was not on holiday, but unemployed, and willing to do any kind of work available, Employment Service staff told him that supply teachers were not eligible for the allowance because they knew when they went into the profession that they would not be paid when schools were closed. Periods without any income were, in other words, an occupational hazard.
"When David got regular supply work we thought we'd turned the corner but now we were back to square one," says Janet Pike, who is studying for A-levels at Park Lane College and hopes to go to university next year to boost her eventual earning power.
She mentioned the family's plight to her tutor, who works on a contractual basis. He told her that he signed on every holiday and had never had any problems with his local job centre in Pudsey, on the outskirts of Leeds.
The Pikes contacted the Pudsey office, which, they claim, told them that the centre in the middle of Leeds had misinterpreted the rules. Staff in the Leeds office said the same about their colleagues in Pudsey, but were proved wrong when an independent adjudicator decided that David Pike was, after all, entitled to the JSA and therefore to housing benefit as well. He received a cheque for #163;70 a few days later, but, because of a further bureaucratic bungle, he and Janet were still waiting for their #163;31 housing benefit three weeks after the end of the half-term break.
Despite the adjudicator's decision, David Pike, who is keen to find a permanent teaching job, still does not know if he will receive any benefit during the summer holidays. What is clear is that the rules for deciding who qualifies for the JSA are wide open to interpretation.
The JSA replaced income support and unemployment benefit for jobless people last October. It is currently under scrutiny as part of the new Government's review of the welfare system. But for the time being, the allowance is payable to those who are available to start work straight away, are actively seeking work and have signed a "jobseekers' agreement", which sets out the steps they intend to take to find work.
Temporary teachers whose contracts cover school holidays clearly have no right to the JSA. Those whose contracts and salaries stop at the end of term are not eligible either if they work, on average, more than 16 hours a week. But when assessing the average number of hours supply teachers have worked, the Employment Service does not take school holidays into account. This means that teachers who work, say 18 hours a week during term time, would not receive the allowance, even though their weekly working hours, if averaged out over a whole year, come to less than 16.
To confuse things further, the Benefits Agency does take school holidays into account when assessing low-paid school ancillary workers and supply teachers for Family Credit, which is payable for term-time periods as well as school holidays. So a supply teacher may be deemed to work more than 16 hours a week for the purpose of the JSA but less than that for the purpose of Family Credit.
The Department of Social Security, which is jointly responsible with the Department for Education and Employment for the JSA, does not have information on how many disputed claims have gone to adjudication. But a spokesperson for TimePlan, a supply teacher agency that has been in business since the late 1980s, says the number of enquiries from the adjudication office has gone up in recent months.
Many of these show a poor understanding of the conditions under which supply teachers are employed. Adjudicators often ask, for instance, for confirmation that these teachers do not have any work in the school holidays or for details of the periods of notice they are entitled to.
Despite such misunderstandings and the Kafka-esque rules of the benefits system, some supply teachers obviously do manage to prove they are genuinely unemployed once their work dries up at the end of term. Says the TimePlan spokesperson: "We tend to find it's the same people who claim every half-term or summer holidays, so I can only assume that they wouldn't keep trying to claim unless they were having some success."