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The teacher supply system isn’t working

March 6, 2023, 14:17 GMT+1
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  • Scotland and Northern Ireland have it sussed - it’s time England caught up with its neighbours
The teacher supply system isn’t working

It is getting harder for schools in England to find quality supply, temporary and part-time staff – be that day-to-day supply teachers, long term supply teachers, TAs, nursery nurses or other non-classroom staff.

It is also expensive and inconsistent. 

Post-pandemic, schools and MATs in England are spending more of their budget than ever on supply staffing. It’s become painfully clear that the system is broken. There is no cohesive national strategy to support provision in this critical part of the workforce.

Yet just over the border in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s easy, affordable and consistently high quality. Here’s why…

In both of these countries, supply staff are directly managed and employed by public sector bodies. It’s worked this way for a long time – there is no ‘market’ for supply staff, and there are no private supply agencies.

Wales is also transitioning to this model, and the education minister Jeremy Miles announced these plans in the Senedd at the end of last year.

School leaders in Scotland and Northern Ireland always know exactly where to go to find the supply staff they need, quickly. There is no need to spend time ringing round multiple different agencies, waiting while they try to find available staff.

As a school leader you simply log into a cloud based system (from your mobile, if you want), post your job and get responses in seconds.

What’s more, they never need to spend time and energy negotiating costs or terms, and can rest assured that the supply worker is getting fairly paid every time. The Scottish and Northern Irish model ensures supply work remains an attractive career choice for staff, represents value for money for schools and is transparently administered.

It also means a non-profit public sector body controls the consistency, quality and vetting of the supply staff available, helping to ensure that incentives for a high-quality and consistent provision are aligned, and not driven by the pursuit of near-term financial profit.

By some estimates, £500m a year is spent on agency service fees by schools in England (predominantly margins and temp-to-perm fees). A national system can be put in place for a fraction of this cost.

This is not an alien concept either – in the NHS, the 42 Integrated Care Boards in England can receive funding to set up local staff banks for direct staff engagement. The total value of this funding pot is around £5m a year.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to make the direct engagement model work in England. The qualified, dedicated supply staff are out there, but we have to be sensitive to the fact that wages have been stagnant for 10 or more years, and many may have taken up work in other sectors due to the endemic poor pay and conditions of the agency/outsourced model.

We need a suitable model that will bring them back to the education sector.

What can English authorities do to solve the problem for schools?

We know that there is demand for the direct engagement model from workers. We know that there is demand from school leaders for a way of finding supply staff more easily. We therefore need to pool this demand. This will require a clear plan to cover:

  • Supply worker pre-engagement and pre-registration
  • School/MAT/LA pre-engagement and pre-registration
  • Definition of the worker employment model (e.g. who the employer is and what pension schemes are accessible to them)
  • Where responsibility for worker compliance sits
  • Procurement and configuration of a technology system to operate the model
  • Implementation and testing of the system and processes established
  • Marketing and rollout (likely phased via geographical region)

The successful implementation of the direct engagement model will require a ministerial or similar high-level commitment to give the project the steer required to see it through, just as Wales has recently secured.

As with much across public sector workforce management, it really comes down to a human issue – respect.

Teachers and school support staff, like NHS workers, were our heroes through the pandemic. Supply staff are a critical subsection of that workforce. Let’s provide them with a decent way of working. 

Che Sood is head of operations at Teacher Booker. Visit