Say pants to supply substitutes

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
A NUMBER of university scientists recently received a letter from an agency that provides supply teachers. It asked if they were interested in temporary supply teaching on the "additional days that your existing commitments do not always fill". It also offered them pound;100 if they introduced a colleague to the agency.

Writing to people out of the blue, suggesting they are underemployed, is not exactly top of the list of strategies I would recommend to those interested in winning friends and influencing people. University scientists are buried under work and are currently in the thick of having their research and teaching assessed, so they are not exactly awash with free time.

What worried me was the desperation. I know that we are short of teachers, but blanket mailing people you have never met is not the answer. Where will it end? If this is the way ahead, I am sorely tempted to set up my own agency to recruit teachers from other professions, offering suitable incentives.

We at the Teacher Recruitment Agency for Substitute Hire (TRASH) will leave no stone unturned, considering anyone likely to feel at home in teaching. Market researchers, for example, could be a fruitful source. They spend their days asking questions and then ticking boxes, so no further training would be necessary.

What about archers? They are supposed to be good at hitting targets. Bridegrooms? Nifty at getting someone across the threshold. Football managers? They have to cope with league tables and they expect to be vilified if they are near the bottom. Rose growers? Well used to dealing with large amounts of fertiliser every day, so they could open the morning post.

As for incentives, what could be easier? Recruit one supply teacher and TRASH will pay for you to have a day off; find three and you get a week's leave. Sign up the thousands who defected because of OFSTED, and you will qualify for our top deal: early retirement, with added years, a job writing right-wing rubbish for a national newspaper, and a peerage.

The belief that people can just slid effortlessly into teaching children is most odd. No one who has tried the job for even five minutes would believe it. John Major's loony idea of a Mum's Army perished when the host of parents who would teach infants with little or no training never materialised. The reason was simple: they would have been run out of town by other parents, unwilling for their children to be taught by people recruited not on qualifications, but on ability to reproduce.

It is even odder to expect anyone less than expert to be a supply teacher, as this is one of the most demanding jobs in education. When we carried out a study of supply teachers a few years ago, I really came to appreciate how skilful the best are. They step into an unknown situation at very little notice and have to be instantly credible. It is certainly not for the fainthearted or inexperienced - you have to be an ace.

They had little support, often having to buy their own basic materials and curriculum handbooks, and when they arrived at a school they were sometimes anonymous: "You the supply?" "Er . . . yes".

"Sandra! The supply's arrived. Sorry, you can't hang your coat in there, no room. You're in the Farnes-Barnes block, room 326B, next to the Millennium Mutilation Wing. It's Year 9 Sludge, Module 74, Introductory Arson. Then you've got Advanced Car Theft with Year 11 GBH in the Stalin Suite. If you need any help ask Mr Knuckleduster, the technician. He'll put you in the picture."

We at TRASH will also operate in the opposite direction, by the way, recruiting teachers to act as substitutes in other professions. There are supply teachers who play the piano in pubs, drive taxis, or, from time to time, are discovered working as strippers.

These strippergram merchants would make excellent registered inspectors, peeling off while reading out their report to the head and governors, removing items of clothing as they pronounced each finding, before hurling high in the air a pair of underpants with any special measures written on them in felt tip. Should be memorable.

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