Traditionally, the warnings to new teachers against starting with supply teaching have been many and fervent. Brenda Stevens at Oxford Brookes University and Margaret Noble at Sheffield Hallam are two who say it should be considered only as the second-best option, yet both also have positive observations about it once it has become the selected path. Possibly the most pragmatic is that if you have not found a permanent post by September, agency work provides experience and the start of a serious curriculum vitae.
Ms Noble quotes a recent student, Lindsey Mercer, who went straight into supply teaching for personal reasons: "I really recommend it because it offers a wonderful opportunity to extend your skills in a variety of schools, to gain confidence within a different role from being a student teacher. It allowed me to look at the sort of schools I might like to work in." Ms Noble adds: "It gives new teachers a chance to get known."
Nowadays, teachers need to get known. The supply picture has changed since the local authority budget cuts combined with the arrival of local management of schools brought commercial agencies into the field. The old arrangement of local authority pools is all but extinct in the secondary sector and nearly so at primary level.
There are many commercial supply teaching agencies, and they are of uneven quality. The National Union of Teachers says it has an enquiry a week from people wanting to know how to set one up. It acknowledges only three, Capstan, First Call, and Educational Support Services, and deputy general secretary Steve Sinnott says that is because they pay the statutory salary and ensure proper employment and interview procedures.
Of the other major unions, none will recommend commercial agencies. Barry Gandy of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers says they are "either exploiting underfunded schools or not paying enough to teachers - or both"; Martin Pilkington of the Associatio n of Teachers and Lecturers notes the lack of complaints or discipline procedures; Dr David Jones of the Professional Association of Teachers says agencies "leave a big problem of who the employer is. The teacher who goes to an agency and works in a school isn't, for example, a member of a pension scheme".
The consensus is that it would be better for local authorities to restart the supply service, to which local authorities reply that there are neither the conditions nor the money.
The NUT is naturally concerned about pay and conditions as well as teacher support and Mr Sinnott believes the free-market ethos undermines the status of teaching. "I don't believe the current arrangements are protective of the welfare of children, " he says, though he admits, "agencies are often more efficient for schools than local education authorities were." Dave Sandilands, head of Woodthorpe Community Primary School in Sheffield, agrees. "I used to make 20-30 phone calls to get supply teachers," he says. "Now it's just one."
Mr Sandilands uses the Capstan agency and says it offers good mentoring to new teachers and careful selection to employers. "They follow up the teachers from time to time, and the teachers report back on their day."
He is probably unusual in preferring to take on new teachers. He believes that they show more enthusiasm and initiative. His school is in a difficult part of Sheffield and he says the agency sifts out those who do not want to teach there: "They only send me people who can do it."
The agencies tell a story of flexibility, opportunity, of experiencing different ways of working, and of new teachers being offered full-time jobs after a brief apprenticeship. In some cases they talk about extra money, although this claim needs careful scrutiny since nearly all of them pay less than scale, and of course there is no provision for school holidays.
The bigger agencies have branches in major towns and some specialise. LHR places British teachers abroad and brings (usually antipodean) teachers here; it speaks warmly of the opportunities for travel that the teaching qualification brings. Cambridge Education Association has branches as far apart as York, Exeter and Wiltshire. Hays Educational Personnel says it puts new teachers forward for long-term posts if it possibly can, and speaks of successes in permanent placement.
Geography can prompt supply work. For Dave Simmonds, a newly-qualified craft, design and technolgy teacher, the offer of a permanent post in the North-east was not in line with his private life. He wished to stay in the Bristol area and so signed up with four agencies. He works consistently about four days a week for LHR, and notes that two of the other agencies have never contacted him at all. So far it is going all right. "I think it takes a certain kind of new teacher to enjoy it," he says. "You need to be open and cheerful, and not demand too much." He recommends building a relationship with the agency, "so you get placed in a way that suits you".
His own relationship with LHR extends to being photographed for the company brochure within a couple of weeks of joining. More general benefits include football matches and cheese and wine evenings, and, says David Simmonds, "at your first interview they say 'always ring us with your problems'".
His criticisms of supply teaching are common to many, newly qualified or not. They include too much travelling and too much pay discrepancy. You may find yourself driving many miles a week with no expenses paid, and rates of pay vary not only between agencies but also between experienced and inexperienced teachers.
Pay is a sticky point. One agency director's salary was quoted recently in six figures, and no amount of efficiency can make schools feel at ease with that. Charges to schools are above scale but supply teachers in general and newly qualified supply teachers in particular are generally paid less, and the gap may be as much as 20 per cent. Steve Sinnott speaks of gaps as wide as #163;110#163;75 a day.
The Government plays its part in making life difficult as self-employe d people can be charged a full week's national insurance contribution in each of their places of work, of which there could be three in a week.
The gloomier view is expressed by Rowena Maton, teacher recruitment officer for Brent Council, one of the few still operating a (primary) supply pool. "We need to finish the training of newly qualified teachers," she says. "They need to be licensed and vetted and the Department for Education and Employment needs to have quality control. Agencies need to have knowledge of the national curriculum. At the moment, they have no responsibility towards the teaching profession and the workforce - only to their clients. "
Set against these warnings is the enthusiastic backing of agencies such as LHR for the idea of new teachers being able to pick and choose. Managing director Paul Howells says: "Teachers prefer day-to-day cover - they have fewer ties. Certainly in towns such as London, Birmingham and Bristol they can get as much work as they need. Many of them pick up permanent jobs in this way, and schools can use the system to find staff."
The suggestion of employing supply teachers as though they were auditioning for permanent roles, however, is not one that finds favour generally.
For those who want to travel, the agency offers opportunities in Australia and New Zealand. It also brings teachers from there back here, which seems a somewhat topsy-turvy view of fulfilling supply and demand, though when Mr Howells says New Zealand is 2,000 teachers short for January he describes it as "exciting", and it certainly is for new teachers who want to see the world. However, he concurs with teacher trainers and unions that "if newly qualified teachers feel insecure and need support, supply teaching is probably not ideal".
It seems that the educational employment situation in general and the supply teaching sector in particular is itself now a marketplace in which you need to observe, research, and then sell yourself.
John Howson of Oxford Brookes University says Britain has "the most market-based teaching profession in the world". However, he also says that if you get a full term's booking you will develop like anyone else. He agrees with many who hope for the reintroduction of a version of the probationar y year.
If there is a consensus, it appears to be that starting with supply teaching, unless you have to do it for pressing reasons, is second best, but that paradoxically it can offer more scope.
If you do have to begin in this way, look for an agency that serves your needs, keep them informed of your progress and your problems, get them to help you when you need mentoring - and supply teaching may be an interesting introduction to your profession.