SCHOOLS IN Britain are being forced to put unreliable and poor-quality supply teachers in front of classes, they say. They are relying on supply and overseas teachers for greater day-to-day flexibility. It is a reason why the number of teachers working without qualfied teacher status has swollen nearly fivefold, from 2,500 in 1997 to 11,800 last year.
But with proportionately fewer such teachers out looking for work or enrolled with recruitment agencies, those on the market can pick and choose between jobs.
Recruitment agencies say the knock-on effect has been to make Australians and New Zealanders, traditionally a cornerstone of supply teaching, less reliable.
Charlotte Broomfield, an education consultant for NP Teaching and herself a New Zealander, said that Antipodeans had excellent reputations as teachers, but the company's analysis showed that the high demand meant they could take their pick of jobs. "Some are happy to pull out at the last minute if a better package is offered to them," she said.
"For some Antipodeans, coming to the UK is a working holiday, so they don't have the conscience that some other teachers would have. Some schools have had trouble with the casual attitude of these teachers."
Dean Kelly, managing director of Public Recruitment Group, which owns agencies including Supply Desk and TeachLondon, said that the more fragmented market made in-demand teachers such as Australians and New Zealanders more likely to change agencies and jobs "for a few pounds here and there".
"Antipodeans do more practical training, so they can hit the ground running better than an NQT from this country," said Mr Kelly. "But you're going to find reliability issues with them because they are not in their homeland.
They are not going to be here for ever, so if they can change, they will change."
With Australians and New Zealanders increasingly placing a high estimate on their own worth, schools were starting to rely on more committed British and Canadian supply teachers, said Mr Kelly.
But he acknowledged wider quality issues as well: "If you phone an agency at quarter to nine in the morning, you generally get the bottom of the barrel."
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, is expected today to publish his response to a School Teachers' Review Body report, which advises that the industry is ready to bring part-time and occasional teachers' pay into line with full-time teachers. That change is estimated at pound;46million.
While the number of occasional supply teachers has remained largely constant in recent years, they have been supplemented by schools'
dramatically increased use of cover supervisors, part-timers and overseas teachers.
Malcolm Noble, headteacher at London's biggest school, the 2,200-pupil Bexleyheath secondary, expressed concern about a "steady deterioration" in the quality of agency teachers, irrespective of nationality.
"It is their unreliability in the classroom," he said. "We had someone today teaching a class who looked fine, he was well presented, he seemed all right - but he allowed the class to do as they liked without stepping in to intervene."
Tim Benson, headteacher at the 900-pupil Nelson primary in east London, said that the poor quality of supply teachers was a problem.
Many supply teachers expected to walk in with no preparation and be supplied with ready-made lessons to deliver, he said. In the past some supply teachers had walked out within the first hour; others he had asked to leave.
But he noted the challenge of the job: "Many schools do mistreat their supply teachers. It's tremendously difficult to walk into a strange school, a strange class.
"I've heard horror stories of supply teachers just being chucked to the lions."