Labour of loathing

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Supply teachers are livid at losing work as heads appoint a new breed of supervisor to fill in for absent staff. Nic Barnard reports

Scab is an ugly word, but it is the kind of language being thrown around by angry supply teachers as demand for their services falls and they contemplate less money in the bank. Some supply agencies say business is down by up to 30 per cent. There are many reasons but the one most often proffered is the rise of the "cover supervisor" to fill in for absent teachers.

Growing numbers of headteachers are taking on cover supervisors, either part-time or full-time. The attractions are obvious: they are cheaper than using supply agencies and they are permanently on hand. Larger schools may employ several.

The trend has provoked anger among teachers who are unable or unwilling to find permanent jobs and who rely on supply work for their income.

In angry exchanges on the TES online staffroom forum, some refer to cover supervisors as "scabs" for taking work away from fully qualified, unemployed teachers. "I am just so angry... at the arrogance and effrontery of these people who think they can just walk in and do a responsible, complex and very demanding job almost off the street," wrote one teacher.

The introduction of these supervisors has attracted criticism from classroom unions, although heads say the new breed of supervisor can often provide a better service for less money.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "Heads genuinely feel that if they can employ people from the permanent staff, who get to know pupils a great deal better than any supply teacher can, they may well prove to be a better bet."

Teachers relying on supply work say they have seen the number of days they work drop. Stewart, 52, who works in East Anglia and was registered with five agencies in Suffolk and Norfolk, says he now averages three days' work a week. Last academic year he was working full-time.

"Since September, I've done 23 days," he says. "This week, I was fortunate: I did four. You can think about doing two, maybe three days a week, but you can't guarantee any more."

He is aware that several schools that had given him work have now employed cover supervisors. "Instead of knowing where I'm going to be, I sit with two mobile phones and a land line in front of me wondering when I'm going to get a call," he says.

"There is a lot of anger. Teaching is a graduate profession; unions have fought for years to make it one. Now the Government is saying it doesn't matter, you can have anyone in. You need someone who can look at pupils'

work, someone who has some subject knowledge so they can give some input."

A survey by the National Union of Teachers in April found that almost half of supply teachers reported less work than in the previous academic year.

Only one in five at that time blamed the use of support staff and twice as many blamed the financial squeeze on school budgets. The cover supervisor effect seems greater since the summer break.

Eteach, the web-based teacher recruitment and supply service, reports that the demand for day-to-day supply cover is down by up to a third on last term. Meanwhile, large numbers of teachers have registered with the site, a sure sign of the increased difficulty of finding shifts.

"I think teachers will find that short-term, day-to-day, ad hoc bookings will reduce, whereas the longer-term, subject-specific bookings, where schools are obliged to bring in a specialist, shouldn't be affected," says Paul Howells, chief executive of Eteach. "But in the South East, traditionally, a good 50 per cent of supply work has been day-to-day bookings."

Fiona Eldridge, chair of Teaching Personnel, another supply agency, also says demand for supply teachers is down. "One factor is good teacher training recruitment in the primary sector," she says.

"There are quite a lot of newly qualified primary teachers out there without jobs. The other aspect is that schools are being careful with their budgets and starting to use cover supervisors."

But Chris King, director of education at TimePlan, a London agency, sounds a note of caution to those blaming the rise of cover supervisors.

"Yes, the market is down, but that's because it was unrealistically high," he says. "If you look at three years ago, when everybody was desperate for teachers to fill long-term vacancies, that was the extraordinary period. I think things have reverted to type.

"If there are more teachers in schools, there are more to go on maternity leave, catch flu or go on training courses. Those things don't stop."

But Mr Howells believes there is still hope. "Heads I speak to are looking at cover supervisors as a short-term stop-gap to save money," he says.

"There are risks, obviously, in inexperienced people trying to manage tough classes."

Heads could find themselves saving money at the cost of spending half the day pacing the corridors, he adds.

The NUT says cover supervisors should be used only as a last resort.

John Bangs, the union's head of education, has called for schools and local authorities to adopt a more imaginative approach.

"Local authorities are simply not picking up the issue," he says. "It may be a failure of the Government to get the message across, but it is part of the workload agreement that you have to factor in a role for supply teachers and not let them swing in the wind. You can't have a situation where you always have to fall back on cover supervisors."

But in support of heads, Mr Hart points to the recent report by Ofsted that was deeply critical of the quality of some supply teachers and their training.

"If you've despaired of ever getting a supply teacher who can do more than keep order or mind the class, you will inevitably turn to other solutions," says Mr Hart. "Using the support staff more imaginatively may well fit the bill."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, was also trenchant in his defence. "The proportion of school budgets spent on supply teachers in recent years has been a very poor use of taxpayers'

money," he says. "This is a sensible way of husbanding resources."

Gerald Haigh, page 2

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today