Demand better for supply

1st August 2003 at 01:00
There could be a relatively simple method to match suitable supply teachers with council vacancies, says Tony Thornton

I WAS disappointed to read in The TESS recently an article by a teacher about how she was treated while "on supply". She has my sympathy. The horror starts with the offer of work for "a day or two" at an unknown school. At the appointed time our teacher waits in the corridor while the depute deals with urgent matters before the morning bell. During a break in the chaos, our teacher is handed a timetable covering a diversity of subjects and given directions to the first lesson.

On arrival at the particular department, there is the usual greeting of "Oh, hello. Are you the supply?" followed by the frantic rush to see if the usual teacher has left work, and the location of the books. Throughout the lesson, the class will use the opportunity of a teacher-just-passing-through to test the elasticity of the human condition.

Our teacher having been told to tell the class simply to "copy out pages 15-20, and answer the questions at the bottom of the page", has instantly had a degree of command and control removed, and has not been given any opportunity to impose himherself upon the class through a demonstration of teaching ability. It is the same story of mismanagement and lack of appreciation from lesson to lesson throughout the day. I was once "on supply" in a Glasgow school, covering a timetable that was predominantly religious education. I am a biology and science specialist.

At the same time, a needlework specialist was covering a science timetable, and a religion teacher was covering needlework. There is no thought or respect for "the supply"; not by the pupils, the staff or the senior management team.

To improve working conditions for teachers on supply, there has to be a fundamental change to the system of supply teacher management.

The General Teaching Council holds a database of all registered teachers.

Anyone with a basic knowledge who had access to the database could establish which teachers are looking for supply work, and filter them by subject speciality and councils. When teachers register with the GTC, they should be required to stipulate the councils in which they would like to work. Instantly, this maximises the potential of councils to recruit available teachers. Moreover, the teachers are categorised by subject speciality. Imagine the following sequence of events: 1. A school needs a biology teacher.

2. The school sends a request form online to the council.

3. The council accesses that part of the GTC database to which they have been given rights, and checks availability.

4. Ideally, a subject specialist is located and an offer of work made.

5. If accepted, the council sends a profile of the teacher, with photograph, on a standard form back to the school.

6. The school replies with a timetable and list of contacts, which is forwarded to the teacher.

7. The teacher arrives at the school prepared to teach, and is recognised and greeted by name on arrival.

8. Someone in each department has responsibility for the management and welfare of the new temporary member of staff.

At the end of a placement, the school would fill out a simple tick sheet to give feedback to the council. If positive, this would be reflected in the profile of the teacher. So good practice is rewarded, and an element of motivation is introduced to supply teaching. The common "permanent pool of supply" model is flawed; it relies upon individual teachers registering their interest with the council. Not every available teacher is likely to register with every accessible council, and the system is immediately inefficient. By expressing council preferences as part of GTC registration, there is maximum potential for councils and maximum opportunity for teachers.

The system is further flawed because the emphasis seems to be on placing teachers at schools, on the basis that they are getting paid anyway.

Surely, it would be more beneficial to pupils, if the emphasis shifted to subject matching and ability.

Tony Thornton is an independent training and education adviser.

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