What to do about supply teaching?

19 Jul

I was interested to read Simon Thomas AM’s proposal for a national co-operative for supply teachers in yesterday’s Western Mail.

Campaigning for better protection and a fairer deal for supply teachers is something the NUT  has done for some time.  Indeed we have raised the issue with Simon Thomas, as well as the other spokespeople at the Assembly in recent meetings.  I have to say there is an almost universal recognition that the system as it currently exists is not working.

At present we are still waiting for the joint Wales Audit Office/Estyn review into this issue to know what, if any, changes can be made in future. Given the pace of change with the vast majority of changes seen in Welsh education over the past few years, it is a tad frustrating that this particular report has seemingly been gathering dust, especially considering the short notice unions and other stakeholders were given to respond over the Christmas and New Year period earlier this year.

One of the issues that we get the most calls about in the NUT Cymru office is the treatment of teachers who work through supply agencies.  It is an issue that has cropped up around five times today alone.  The main complain is that individuals are subjected to greatly reduced pay and conditions through working as part of an agency, even though they have the same qualifications and expertise as members on permanent contracts.  It is having a real impact on morale in classrooms across Wales and it is time something was done to address it.

For those that argue “it’s their choice to work with an agency,” the reality is that for most teachers who do it is the only way they can access work.  In some areas of Wales local authorities have strict guidance that forces schools to use agencies and in some cases specific supply agencies.  This gives a monopoly to private companies that straightjacket teachers into having to accept poorer terms of work or else have no way of earning a living.  Many people find themselves in a position where they rightfully believe they are not treated fairly but are afraid that if they come forward with those complaints they will be blacklisted and won’t have the opportunity to work in future.

It is even a case that some supply agencies are ignoring their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations 2010.  Agencies are required to pay supply teachers the standard rates if they are in post for 12 weeks or more but often we are seeing teachers reaching that threshold and either being forced into contracts that depress their rights or are simply let go and no longer able to access work.  NUT Cymru put forward a motion, which was universally supported, at the last WTUC conference in Llandudno calling on the Welsh Government to work with partners in local government to address this issue.  The union has also asked the Welsh Government to examine a possible strategy that provides a guaranteed offer of work for 12 months for all newly qualified teachers in a maintained school when individuals achieve qualified teacher status to tackle this problem at an early stage.

Not only are standards hit by the low morale of supply teachers being mistreated by agencies, but they also do not get the same levels of CPD, if any at all, as contracted teachers.  This leads to the abilities and pedagogical knowledge of supply practitioners becoming stagnant, even though they themselves have a firm commitment to professional development.

The current set up is just not sustainable.  Agencies are creating a race to the bottom with standards and morale being the first to see a decline.  What Simon Thomas has proposed may need further discussion but with the way teachers are currently treated, and seeing the impact first hand with calls on an almost hourly basis to the NUT Cymru office, every alternative needs to be explored.

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