Supply new meaning

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Temporary teaching staff should have their role taken more seriously, writes Anne Manyara

The role of supply teaching in the provision of education in the UK has grown significantly.

Schools are making greater use of supply teachers. In Wales, one agency alone has 1,500 registered teachers, of whom 600 are active. In one week, the agency can provide teachers for up to 50 schools in Wales and parts of Bristol.

While many supply teachers meet the standards for qualified teacher status at a good level, with good subject knowledge and effective planning and teaching, most are ill-prepared for the challenges they face.

This is because supply teachers rarely use their subject knowledge, nor have the opportunity to plan for lessons, let alone have any rapport with the pupils. To add to all that, they have little or no opportunities for professional development. All this has led to the emergence of a "supply culture" which seriously undermines the important role that they play.

Inspection reports continually point out the unsatisfactory teaching of supply teachers, but given the demoralising conditions that they often work in this should come as no surprise.

Their professional characteristics and teaching skills are often under-used and sometimes unappreciated while, for many, the classroom climate is at best bearable, and at worst hostile. Many supply teachers feel permanent staff do not treat them as colleagues or peers.

A head of department in a Cardiff school told me: "Some teachers come along and scrunch the work (that the pupils did with a supply teacher), and write it off as a supply lesson.

"It's what the supply teachers are up against and goes to create the culture of the supply teacher."

Pupils notoriously have low regard for them. When they walk into their classroom and find a replacement for their regular teacher, they excitedly say to one another: "We've got a supply!" Any supply teacher reading this article knows that this simply means: "It's a free lesson. Let's have a ball."

The irony is that despite this resurgence in the use of supply teachers, and the obvious repercussions that it has on the overall quality of education, this is a field that has been largely overlooked by researchers and policy-makers - a fact reflected by the limited literature available on the subject.

First and foremost, there is a need to reduce the demand for supply teachers by improving the working conditions of permanent ones. A recruitment consultant for the Cardiff and Newport area confided that demand for supply teachers starts to picks up in November, when permanent teachers start to call in sick due to "stress and mental fatigue".

More effort could also be made on the management of short-term cover. It would be helpful if supply agencies and school managers gave less-experienced teachers long-term cover, and left the short-term cover to more experienced colleagues, as they are more skilled in dealing with the challenges of the latter.

As for the supply culture, the first step is to acknowledge and appreciate the vital role of temporary staff. One Cardiff teacher told me some schools would "come to a stop" if it were not for supply teachers. Yet many complain of experiencing animosity from permanent staff.

This could be because many permanent teachers feel that the organisational and planning tasks they have to undertake to ensure that classes are effectively covered in their absence results in a significant increase in their workload.

Of course, these problems have not been created by the supply teachers but by the absent teachers. And, if anything, the situation would be even worse were it not for the supply teachers filling in.

More research needs to be done with the aim of standardising and modernising the concept of supply teaching. Setting up a national database has already been suggested elsewhere.

This could help to ensure that supply teachers are matched to the demands of the placement, and hence increase the chance that they will be teaching their own subject. It could also help in planning appropriate continuing professional development courses for them.

Standardising supply teaching could also ensure that there is consistency in the teaching approach, and in the rewards and sanctions used by supply teachers.

It would put an end to "supply" teaching and create a new and necessary "genre" of teaching, for the 21st century.

Anne Manyara is a supply teacher in Cardiff. This article draws on a study in which she interviewed supply teachers in Newport and Cardiff and other professionals involved with supply

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