Court 51, the scene of the recent High Court case over who employs supply teachers, is in such a remote corner of the Strand complex that even relatively youthful judges have been known to get lost on their way there. The case itself, however, was of central importance to the teaching profession and to the National Union of Teachers, which could face a Pounds 250,000-plus legal bill.
Mr Justice Evans-Lombe's ruling that TimePlan, the largest teacher recruitment agency, rather than local education authorities, is the employer of its supply staff is further proof that the phenomenon known as "contingent staffing" - when recruitment is wholly contingent on the employers' profit and production needs - is becoming the norm in Britain's schools. The same can evidently be said of further education now that Oaklands College, St Albans, has become the first to advise part-timers to sign on with Education Lecturing Services, the Nottingham-based agency that aims to become a nationwide operation.
This trend is an inevitable consequence of the endless struggle to achieve more rational and cost-effective staffing systems, but unfortunately it will help to nullify the improvements in part-timers' employment rights that the Law Lords ushered in last year. And it is questionable whether it will benefit either education or the economy in the long run.
Agency supply teachers are already at the bottom of the education food chain, of course, but these developments leave them more vulnerable than ever. One danger is that the High Court decision may embolden unscrupulous agencies to drive down their daily rates still further. The judge's decision also confirms that there is a growing number of teachers whose pay and conditions are unrelated to national settlements.
Some heads with budgetary problems may welcome the court ruling, but a price may have to be paid for any short-term gain. Schools and colleges have no reason to expect that a teacher working for a second-rate fee will give them a first-rate service (many still do, nevertheless). The little matter of professional indemnity insurance has yet to be clarified too. Will agencies be held responsible if a child is injured in one of their teachers' classes? And if so, will they be able to meet the compensation bill?
Schools also run the risk of hiring agency teachers who have not been checked with the police and the Department for Education. In any case, the DFE often takes months to add teachers to its blacklist after a conviction for child abuse, and this, in theory, enables offenders to enrol with one of the slacker agencies, themselves unregulated since January. TimePlan was right to press the DFE for agencies to be regularly audited and forced to join an ABTA-like bonding scheme to ensure that staff are paid in the event of bankruptcy.
ELS, being the only provider in its field, stands a good chance of avoiding some of the problems that teacher agencies pose, but it too will worsen the lot of most lecturers (they will earn as little as Pounds 10.29 an hour and will have no pension entitlement). And it is society, or rather the Department of Social Security, that will have to help the luckless part-timers. As Sir Gordon Borrie, chairman of the Commission on Social Justice, has pointed out, a free market in labour that encourages casualisation and reduces wages inevitably produces higher demands for Family Credit and Income Support. Not to mention a great deal of personal misery.