Supply and Demand

17 Sep

I have previously blogged on some of the issues facing supply teachers here. In that post I touched on the frustration of waiting for the publication of the Wales Audit Office/Estyn report into the impacts of the current set up. I’m pleased that this report has now been put before the public.

On the face of it I have to say I am a little disappointed with the depth of research. As stated by the press release the Wales Audit Office/Estyn visited a total of 23 Primary and Secondary Schools. While I’ve no doubt they had a good indication of existing concerns through those discussions that is still only 23 schools from a total of around 1,700 schools in Wales. Of course the resources to go around each and every school simply do not exist, but I would have thought a higher percentage would have been necessary given the complexity and importance of this issue.

The report itself makes three key recommendations to drive up standards and reduce costs, which I will look at in turn.

Improving the management of cover arrangements in schools, including developing polices that focus on learners’ progress and more effective use of resources.

I would agree that improving the planning of cover could have positive impacts on both the budgets and quality of a school. However, much of this is often dependant on the sources that schools can access their supply cover from. Some local authorities in Wales have instructed schools to only access supply cover through supply agencies. In some cases specific agencies have been given a contract to cover all schools in that locality, essentially creating a monopoly on the service. This makes it extremely difficult for both schools and teachers given it has created a “sellers” market. Schools are well aware that they have to go to these agencies for their cover, and teachers seeking work know it is either through a supply agency (often a particular supply agency) or there is no work at all. This makes raising any concerns with the practices of those agencies very difficult for individuals to pursue.

A further concern is the practices that are employed by agencies to avoid their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR) 2010. Under these regulations any supply teacher that is in post for 12 weeks or longer is entitled to be paid at a rate equivalent to a full-time teacher, rather than the depressed terms and conditions they generally face that drives down morale and motivation. Unfortunately, we are increasingly aware of anecdotal evidence of teachers being pulled from roles as they near that time limit so that agencies can avoid paying this higher rate. Should a school, who will potentially have found that supply teacher to have been performing well and working with the right ethos of the school, wish to employ them directly they may have to pay a huge flat fee to the agency. What is more many teachers working through agencies are finding themselves locked into long-term restrictive contracts. You may ask why they would sign such contracts that impact on their take home pay and ability to find direct employment? The answer goes back again to the monopoly that these agencies have. Supply teachers, caught between a rock and a hard place, know unless they sign such a contract they may not be able to work at all.

What would help both schools and supply teachers in acting on this recommendation is if the Welsh Government and local authorities worked together to establish in-house services. These would provide a list of well-trained and motivated teachers that could be available to schools without the difficulties of operating through the agency system.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning in covered lessons by making sure that work is set at an appropriate level

In an ideal world this would be a recommendation put into action tomorrow. In some cases where supply cover is anticipated (maternity leave/training purposes etc.) it is an issue that schools can look at and see if improvements can be made to their current set ups. Of course illnesses can not always be well planned. Teachers, like anyone in any walk of life, can become ill. Common illnesses are actually more likely to be spread in a school setting than the vast majority of other workplaces. Where this happens again we go back to the need to ensure that there is a ready, available and motivated supply structure. Another reason that local authorities and the Welsh Government must revisit the current approach to allowing supply agencies to run roughshod over standards, pay and conditions.

A second consideration to this recommendation is how we can reduce the amount of sick days. While I have stated above that often sick days can not be planned, and general infections can spread easily in the classroom environment, one area of sickness that does hit the teaching profession more than most is stress induced sickness. Teachers, as a profession, have some of the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, anxiety or depression respectively. Teacher support estimate that as many as 40,000 people working in education, right now, could be experiencing some kind of mental health issue. In 2011 Channel 4 News reported the high number of teacher suicide rates, including an 80% increase in 2009. With recent hits to teachers pay and pensions to be factored in I dread to think if there could be an increase in coming years. (The mental health impact of teaching is an issue I think I will return to in a separate blog post another time).

You need only look at the recently independent TES survey to see that changes over recent years in Wales have hit morale amongst our practitioners. If not just for the scandalous mental health impact of teaching and the wellbeing of the profession, tackling the cause of stress related illnesses at a classroom level will help reduce the costs of supply cover for schools and ensure a greater level of consistency for pupils. It doesn’t take an educational expert to make the connection that reducing the pressure and workload placed on teachers, something that could quite easily be done by examining some of the unnecessary aspects of a teachers role, will create a more motivated and fulfilled workforce. This in turn reduces the teaching days lost to health concerns and improves standards for pupils who benefit from that prolonged relationship with their teachers. It is a very easy win-win.

Providing better access to training and development for supply teachers and increasing access to national training programmes that are available to permanently employed teachers

This is a very timely and particularly important argument. One of the biggest problems facing supply teachers is the inability to access any continued professional development. We are often told how it is quality teaching in the classroom that makes the biggest difference to the ability of pupils to improve standards. However, we are allowing a situation whereby supply agencies are gaining a monopoly on cover and are not investing in training or CPD for those individuals. This is particularly damaging when it comes to ensuring teachers on supply contracts are up to date with all the newest initiatives that are introduced by the Welsh Government. The amount of new policies that have been introduced in Wales recently, coupled with the decision to cut the number of INSET days, has left many full-time teachers playing catch up. For those working through agencies with no access to training it is an ever more difficult challenge.

Until the powers of agencies are curbed and a system is developed to support training and fairer conditions for those undertaking supply work this problem will only continue to snowball.

Finally, it is a little alarming to see the reaction to this report centred on a perception that employing supply teachers is causing poor standards and getting ride of them is the answer. The reality is there will always be a need for supply teaching. Teachers, like any profession, will always have a certain amount of days off with sickness; there will always be a need for maternity cover as well as cover for training. If the response to the report is simply to lambast supply teachers then we as a nation will have missed a major opportunity to look at how we can better support the supply system and ensure a fairer deal for both teachers working in that environment and pupils.

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