Nicola Lund, part-time supply teacher
Schools in Wales are facing a budget crisis, and yet the use of private teaching agencies has rocketed in recent years.
Formerly, schools requiring cover teachers would employ regular supply teachers directly or would use local authority pools of suitably vetted and qualified staff.
However, some local authorities have closed down payroll facilities for temporary teachers and are actively pushing schools to use private teaching agencies. This is despite these agencies take hefty commissions from what schools pay them from their ever-decreasing budgets.
Why would local authorities do this? Because it absolves local authorities from paying pension and national insurance contributions and from paying teachers according to their scale. Teachers usually progress through the pay scale according to experience and responsibilities within schools.
Most recent figures show that schools in Wales spent a total of £40m on supply teachers during 2016/17. It is claimed that of this money up to £50 per day per teacher is going into agency coffers. This equates to £10k per teacher, per year.
Previously, Welsh Government had one preferred supplier of cover teachers. This agency last year came under fire for its ‘obscene’ payments to directors.
It is not even as if agencies are maintaining standards in education, hence the necessary introduction of the Welsh Government’s recent new Framework Agreement which is designed to promote greater scrutiny of agency practice.
However, the majority of agencies are still able to work outside this framework. It is still possible to be sent into schools without having undergone safeguarding training, a basic legal requirement.
Cover Supervisors need not be qualified teachers. They carry out supervision of pupils undertaking pre-prepared exercises. The role should not involve any teaching, marking or planning.
Despite this, it is common practice for secondary schools to employ agency cover supervisors to cover teacher absence.
In Wales there are approximately 4,500 supply teachers. Many would rather accept a lower rate than their scale rate for day to day, short term cover as opposed to what they see as exploitation by agencies.
However, very often desperate supply teachers are having to accept work as cover supervisors and learning support assistants at far lower remuneration. As an agency worker the life of a supply teacher is far from ideal.
What can be done about this? Technological alternatives are available which in theory could eliminate this drain of school resources and better match schools to supply teachers. Alternatives would include apps or platforms like Teacherbooker.com.
Mounting pressure on Welsh Government has led to Cabinet Member Kirsty Williams to spend £2.7 million on a pilot project where clusters of schools employed pools of full time newly qualified supply teachers, similar to – yes, you have guessed it – the former method of direct employment.
The former method meant schools could employ regular cover teachers, ensuring continuity for children and for the supply teacher familiarity with the pupils, the school and its routines. This project ended in August 2019 and the findings are yet to be finalised and published.
In summary, it would appear that local authority cutbacks have led to fat cat agency gain and a lack of continuity and quality in cover for our children.
Has it taken £2.7 million to tell us what we already knew – that the current agency model is unethical and unfit for purpose?