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Using technology to solve the teacher supply headache

January 10, 2022, 12:11 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Ollie Parsons examines how schools can save time and money by sourcing their own substitute teachers
Using technology to solve the teacher supply headache

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the education sector in the UK. Headteachers across the nation have had to move rapidly to ensure the continued and uninterrupted provision of education for their pupils.

This has meant embracing new technologies and adapting to rapid change. 

Digitisation has touched almost every aspect of the classroom and school life. But while digital pedagogy has developed rapidly over the last two years, contingent school staffing hasn’t seen the same benefits. 

Schools in England and Wales are still mostly reliant upon agencies to address any form of temporary staffing need. While the lockdown brought an initial reprieve, since schools have re-opened they have been plagued by unpredictable Covid related staff absences that have caused havoc.

In addition to this, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and migration caused by Brexit have led to a greatly reduced teacher supply pool for this current academic year. 

Some schools have attempted to move away from the agency model over the last two years by employing teams of cover supervisors on direct contract or by building their own bank of local supply staff.

However, these systems are limited in capacity, are usually recorded piecemeal on spreadsheets and remain vulnerable to the unpredictable nature of Covid absence. 

Can technology solve staffing issues?

A number of companies have begun to look at this challenge and what is evident so far is that, with the right system, the traditional role of the recruitment consultant can be easily excised.

The correct engagement of a technological platform can put schools in direct contact with teachers who are looking for work. Modern forms of communication allow schools to reach staff anywhere at any time. 

Using a technological platform to create a pool of teachers can save you much needed time. You can communicate your needs with teachers at the click of a button and similarly, they too can respond with their availability with ease. 

Your pool of staff doesn’t need to be contained to your contacts alone either. You could reach out to other schools in your local area, local authority or within academy chains, making your pool of trusted supply teachers and staff even bigger.

For an example of this in motion we can look at the models of Scotland and Northern Island. Both use a variation of the bank of supply staff model, backed up by a technological platform.

In Scotland for instance, the supply model is local authority led, with supply teachers having to sign up to their supply pool to secure work. There are no agencies and the vetting and payroll is handled by the local authority.

Schools have access to an online platform that puts them in direct contact with the council approved supply staff and at no point in the supply process is an agency involved. 

What about the admin?

In addition to providing a tool to pool together your contacts, online platforms can also operate as an easy to access one-stop shop. Not only do they function as communicating a vacancy, but they can offer timesheet systems and approvals and payroll options too.

Balancing the books

One of the main advantages of a technological platform, alluded to already, is its capacity to cut out agencies from the picture.

Over £1 billion is now spent annually on agencies in the education sector, which has compounded the problems brought on by reduced government funding. 

Agencies rely on their consultants to close deals and bring in revenue. It is often a thankless job, requiring long hours. The only way agencies can attract and retain good consultants is by paying them handsome commissions.

Depending on an agency’s commission structure, at some bandings recruitment consultants can earn up to 20% of their billings as commission, on top of their basic salary which for many starts at around £40k, and it is school budgets that are funding these salaries.

Schools can be charged margins ranging from £30 - £80 a day on daily/long term supply bookings and will levy engagement fees starting from 10% of annual salary up to 25% in some cases. It is these huge expenses that can cripple school budgets.

With the successful application of technology and a correctly built and calibrated online booking system, schools can remove the need for consultants and so the costs to schools can be drastically reduced - there is no longer the need to support and perpetuate the commission culture. 

How do we get there?

As great as these technology platforms may sound, it will take time and a change in attitudes in order to implement them.

The technology itself can be quick to set up but the recruitment and maintaining of local supply pools will require schools and local authorities to work together. This is a good thing. Staffing shortages shouldn’t be something that schools have to tackle on their own. 

By working in collaboration with each other to build regional supply pools, schools and local authorities will be able to control who they recruit, share data on what their most acute needs are and ensure that appropriate standards are upheld with regards to compliance and vetting. 

Schools have embraced a wide range of new technological solutions to help ensure they remain functional and recruitment has been no exception. Now is the ideal time for schools to continue to drive forward this much needed change. 2022 can definitely be the year we fix supply recruitment headaches!

What can we do in the interim?

There are several steps schools can take to get things in motion:

  • Build your own pool. Employ a team of cover supervisors on direct contract to act as your first line of contingency staffing. The money you spend on these salaries will save thousands in agency fees and the job security provided will lead to consistency. The students will know who to expect for cover and things will go a lot smoother.
  • Offer progression to support staff. Use staff that are already familiar with the school. Teaching Assistants are a great place to start. After a year on the job consider offering them additional responsibility as a cover supervisor and offer them a career path. If you can nurture the support staff you already employ, then they could become your future teachers.
  • If you have to deal with agencies, limit the number you work with and don’t be afraid to negotiate hard. Find a consultant who actually listens to you. Establish fixed rates for supply and do not deviate from them.
  • Remember, unless you sign a contract with an agency for their services, you can always negotiate down rates.
  • Treat supply staff well! Remember, supply teachers are providing an invaluable service. Make sure they receive a warm welcome and brief them on exactly what they will be doing/what you expect of them. They are there to help and while not all supply teachers are the same, you want to ensure that supply staff are happy to come to your school. They compare notes and stories of mismanagement, poor organisation or being treated dismissively will spread.
  • Speak to your local authority and schools in your local area about collaborating. Think of how you could share resources, merge your supply pools or frontline contingency staff.

Ollie Parsons is Education Recruitment Specialist at Teacher Booker, which offers a range of services and advice to help schools and teachers. Follow Teacher Booker on Twitter and Facebook: @teacherbooker or email hello@teacherbooker.com