It pays to be greedy

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Grasping private supply agencies stand accused of fleecing schools and teachers. Susannah Kirkman reports

CALLS are growing for the regulation of the hundreds of private supply agencies which have mushroomed in response to the teaching recruitment crisis.

"We need an end to the free-market chaos," said Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Schools spend more than pound;600 million a year on supply cover and Ms Evans says that the public needs to be reassured that excessive profits are not being made.

Ms Evans wants to see minimum standards of training and pension provision for supply teachers, while the National Union of Teachers says that the Department for Education and Skills should at least issue guidance to private agencies on training and working conditions.

"We don't want unregulated agencies. It's not just a question of schools' budgets; it's about the quality of teachers," said Kerry George, head of pay and conditions at the National Association of Head Teachers. "It's partly a workload issue. Headteachers need to be able to make a single phone call and yet know that the teacher who turns up will be of an acceptable quality."

Reputable agencies are also urgiing regulation of the industry. "We are all being tarred with the same brush," said David Wragg of Primary Supply, a Leicester agency. "We pay to scale, we offer pensions and training; we are committed to giving schools and teachers a fair deal, while other agencies are not even conducting police checks."

Mr Wragg says that some agencies are extremely greedy, paying teachers pound;80 a day but charging schools pound;170. He says Primary Supply has a far lower profit margin. "If you deliver good quality and are fair to staff, then people will come back to you," he said.

Dodges used by less reputable agencies include warning experienced teachers that they are unlikely to get regular work if they insist on being paid on Point 9 of the pay scale. However, Reed Education, a newcomer to the supply field, insists that: "When we say we pay up to Point 9, we mean it." The agency is promising to pay teachers throughout the country to scale, although it does not make any contributions to employees' pensions.

Reed's daily fee for a Scale 9 teacher outside London is pound;165, including national insurance. This represents a mark-up of around pound;22. Its daily profit for a London-based teacher would be about pound;20 - quite modest compared with the profit of at least pound;50 for London agencies who do not pay to scale.

Reed says that the market has shifted; quality teachers are now in such short supply that the only way agencies will be able to attract them is by offering decent rates of pay.

Gwen Evans urges supply teachers not to undersell themselves. "They have to say: 'My rate is x,' which is not normal for people brought up in public service."

Some local education authorities are now trying to exert more control over private agencies, either by setting up their own non-profit-making schemes or by commissioning a commercial agency to run the service. There is a growing trend for unitary authorities to run their own agencies; Telford, North-east Lincolnshire and Nottingham have all set up successful schemes.

Alan Lowe, a recruitment-strategy manager for Telford, said: "The quality of schools is at risk if supply teachers are unknown and untrained."

Wirral has accredited Hays, a private agency, to run a supply service, partly on the grounds that the set-up costs for an LEA service would be "too expensive".

Cornwall has set up Jobline, an "arm's length" company owned by the LEA. One of the problems has been persuading schools to use the service. Angie Barnes, Jobline's manager, says that many schools would still rather pay a lower fee for an agency teacher to cover short-term absence, although that supply teacher will receive far less than the scale rate offered by her company. "If headteachers want to see quality and fair pay, they must be prepared to pay for it," she said.

Primary Supply: 0116 2550440;Reed Education: education@reed.co.uk, www.reed.co.ukeducation;Jobline: jobline@cornwallenterprise

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