Have skill, will travel - within reason

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Wanted: Supply work, nine days a month in North Yorkshire. That's what I need to keep myself afloat, having taken early retirement at the age of 51 from teaching to pursue my writing.

In the old days, all of three years ago, I would simply have registered with my LEA and waited for the phone to ring. But times have changed; there are new players in the field, the teacher supply agencies; and in recent week there have been up to 19 such bodies advertising in The TES.

According to the adverts, the major attraction of supply teaching is that I am now in the driving seat. My teaching schedule is up to me, not only the where and who, but also the when. No unwanted calls of duty when I've got a date with a blank sheet of paper.

In cities such as London or Leeds, agency work is relatively easy, but living in far-flung North Yorkshire poses special problems. I could travel to York (35 miles away) or Hull (more like 40) or stay one week Monday to Friday with a headteacher friend in South Yorkshire. What can the agencies offer me?

Sounding out colleagues, I discover that their feelings about agencies are lukewarm. Criticism centres on the fact that education ought to be a public service and private agencies are profiting from its problems. There was even a rumour that an executive at one agency grossed nearly #163;500,000 last year.

What is the union's position, I wonder? In 30 years of paying my National Union of Teachers dues, I've barely made a call on them but I manage to get hold of Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary of the NUT.

The union has to tolerate agencies, he tells me, because its attempt to ensure that all schemes are run by LEAs is failing and "won't happen". He has evidence that some agencies use teachers without a proper police check."Some others rely on open references and the union feels these things threaten pupils' welfare."

According to the NUT, the agencies also jeopardise the consistency with which the framework of the education system is applied. Nominally, the Department for Education and Employment document listing duties, pay and conditions applies to all teachers, but in practice agencies often undermine that agreement. "Lots don't keep to the regulation pay structure", Sinnott goes on, "and teachers employed by them have no access to superannuatio n. This is clearly unfair to supply teachers, many of whom are women and newly qualified teachers."

There are, however, three agencies which claim in their TES advertisements to be endorsed by the NUT. They also claim to pay regulation salaries. "I don't know if I'd say 'endorse'," hedges Sinnott, "but if people must deal with agencies then these are the ones we would advise them to use."

Capstan is one of the three. Its managing director, John Heffernan, says that he started in the field because in the early 1990s his own wife faced incredible difficulties as she worked on supply for LEAs. Although lots of agencies claim to be the biggest, Heffernan is sure that Capstan is the country's biggest employer of newly qualified teachers, bigger than any single LEA.

"We have 6 - 7, 000 teachers on our books and 2,000 client schools. On a busy day, we set up about 1,500 teacher placements."

Capstan boasts that it pays according to the teachers' pay scale and bills schools separately for each teacher. A point nine teacher such as myself will incur a bill of approximately #163;125 outside London - and I'll get my full #163;109 wack. That, and the fact that one of Capstan's directors is seeking proper legislation to regulate the mushrooming teacher agency business, is most encouraging. Furthermore, Capstan is trying to meet the current heads' shortage crisis by specialising in appointing interim heads, for which there's a real demand. But alas, while Capstan is thriving on Tyneside and expanding towards Teesside, North Yorkshire remains out of its reach.

Select Education boasts of its 16 registration offices around the country,although their advertisement makes no mention of rates of pay. According to their publicity, Select covers 33 out of 55 authorities. After a thorough registration procedure, applicants are invited to interview. Once accepted, they receive a detailed guide which gives them useful hints as well as individual school details - for instance, suggesting that they allow a 30-minute time cushion for arrival and departure at school.

As with most other agencies, Select is paid by the school. PAYE and National Insurance is docked by the agency and the money forwarded to the teacher, who is then paid on the Friday of the week following employment. A definite improvement on LEA supply, where the wait for money can last up to seven weeks.

Select's package seems woolliest on superannuation and union membership. They don't cover superannuation and "mention" this at interview; they "recommend rather than advise" union membership, but I only discovered this when I asked what would happen if I went into a school experiencing an industrial dispute.

Like so many other agencies, Select really topples on pay. "We have to make a living," they say. As a point nine on the pay spine, I would probably receive about 80 per cent of scale, preventing my being "cost-prohibitive". It might also prohibit a newly qualified teacher's chances of employment when the differential between newly qualified and experienced staff is dramatically narrowed.

Teaching Personnel's TES ad bears a phone number catering exclusively for teachers in east and North Yorkshire. But once I mention writing for The TES, things go quiet. No one is available to answer my questions, on the grounds that too much will be given away to rival agencies.

First Call is an agency with a difference. It's run by teachers and it promises the proper rate for the job. In return for charging schools a little more than other agencies, they promise unbeatable service. First Call advises retaining union membership and carries considerable insurance.Additionally the cash will be in your bank by the Tuesday of the week following employment.

Christopher Eliot-Newman, who runs things at the London end, claims he isn't earning as much yet as the full-time supply teachers he employs, "but I hope to eventually".

He passes me up to the Yorkshire end of operations. Sadly. I learn that their current expansion still falls short of sunny Scarborough. In the meantime, I send out my personal fliers and remain prepared to teach almost anything, anywhere.

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