Schools across the UK have been facing a severe short term staffing shortage this winter. So much so that the DfE even launched a brief campaign to encourage former teachers back into the classroom, on a supply basis, to support continued in-person provision.

But it hasn’t been enough to ensure continuity of provision across the board. This is down to three main reasons:

  • Health and safety concerns from many potential supply teachers about returning to the classroom amid new waves of COVID
  • A deep-seated aversion to working through supply agencies because of poor prior treatment on employment conditions and pay (see comments section here)
  • A peculiarity in the supply market where demand is high and supply is constrained, yet wages remain at best stagnant and in many cases have decreased over the years

Action is needed on both the local and the national level to fix this broken labour market which is failing schools, teachers and children. Here we’ll look at what practical steps can be taken to ensure that every school leader has access to motivated, engaged classroom professionals whenever they have a gap – and a brilliant teacher or support assistant is available to every child, in-person, to support their development and learning.

We need to reform the treatment of supply teachers and temporary workers across the education sector

This shift in perception needs to be sponsored at both the local and the national level. It’s not just about pay and conditions for workers – although the ubiquitous use of umbrella companies to employ the temporary workforce, which we have repeatedly highlighted as deeply flawed and exploitative, must now be challenged directly by hiring schools and working supply staff (always ask for suppliers’ Key Information Document, as we’ll detail later in this article) – it runs deeper.

When workers who, on the one hand, the sector lauds as saviours and heroes actually themselves feel disposable and undervalued, we must recognise that there is a fundamental misalignment between the entrenched perceptions of the sector and the experience of the workers themselves. Once we’ve taken a moment to acknowledge this, we must take steps to change our default behaviours and attitudes so that those key workers who schools and pupils depend on don’t feel that way – otherwise we’ll lose them, their skills and their deep experience which we so value.

As a sector – from headteachers and the school staff body, to suppliers and commentators of every stripe voicing their opinions in the public forum, we must start respecting the profession of supply teaching.

On the pay and conditions side, we must actively choose to eliminate the use of exploitative umbrella companies and their underhand arrangements with unscrupulous agencies and supply apps. The umbrella model artificially suppresses net pay, exploits tax loopholes and cloaks references to compensation in deliberately confusing language – how many reading this can claim to know the difference between a ‘gross pay rate’, a ‘day rate’, an ‘umbrella rate’, a ‘charge rate’, or some vague notion of ‘your rate’? 

We have spoken with dozens of supply teachers who have been told by their agency/supply app, which invariably includes the majority of the well-known agencies and challenger app providers, that their ‘rate’ for daily supply is, say £140 per day. That’s an average from the stories we’ve heard in Greater London, and while it’s not a great gross rate in comparison with fully employed teachers, it’s about middling for daily supply in London because currently supply teaching is a hugely undervalued profession. The agency/supply app then typically puts around a £40 margin on top of this to make a total charge to the school of £180. 

But when we look deeper, and the teacher shares their payslip with us, it is clear that the £140 figure that the teacher has been told is their ‘rate’ is, in actuality, the amount that the agency/supply app pays a third party umbrella company (with whom the agency/supply app forced the teacher to enrol as their employer), for the services of their employee. The £140 has nothing to do with the teacher’s gross pay rate, although the agency/supply app provider deliberately makes it seem as if it is the gross pay rate. When challenged (and we have helped supply teachers and support staff – for whom the effect of this arrangement is very often even worse – challenge this exploitative practice head-on) the agency/supply app simply washes their hands of it and passes the buck on to the umbrella, who duly tosses it back to the agency again – and nothing happens. We’ve heard this story time and again, and it rightly infuriates the teachers and support staff who are victims of it.

From the £140 it receives from the agency/supply app for the services of its employee, the umbrella company then deducts statutory Employer’s National Insurance (13.8%) and Employer’s Pension Contribution (variable, but often around 3%), plus their administration fee (£10-20 per week) – leaving the teacher with a maximum of £120 gross pay per day, from which their Employee’s NI and income tax must be deducted. So it’s at least a £20 deception per day worked – over 195 days this stacks up to almost £4000 per year, per teacher

It’s really a system-level deception – the majority of the individual consultants in the agencies/supply apps doing this with umbrella companies simply don’t understand what’s actually going on and are blind to the effect of what they are facilitating, especially if the company they work at portrays itself more widely as ‘mission-driven’ or ‘socially-minded’.

As a school leader or just generally as a person interested in ensuring others have the same right to decent work that we’d expect for ourselves, take 5 minutes to arm yourself with the knowledge that will enable you to secure fair pay and conditions for your temporary workforce. Act on that knowledge (choose suppliers carefully, and engage in conversations with your temporary workers about this) and you’ll be rewarded with loyalty, repeat bookings and consistency of provision. As a school leader, ensure you ask for any third party agency supplier’s Key Information Document to clarify their pay arrangements with workers – they legally must have one, and it takes less than a minute to read.

We must challenge supplier terms which are patently exploitative (£12,500 engagement fee for a teacher, anyone?), eliminate the notion of agency/supply app ‘ownership’ after 12 weeks worked (the CCS’s Supply Teacher Framework terms expressly provide this) and standardise what are currently very widely variable terms of engagement.  Contractual blockers like the imposition of finder’s fees routinely block pathways to permanent jobs for temporary workers and disrupt the relationship between school, pupil and teacher in the name of some arbitrary notion of commercial interest.

We must open up disintermediated channels for communication between schools and teachers and provide easy ways for both to engage directly for work opportunities and professional relationship building. Doing so is easier than it ever has been thanks to the technologies we all have at our fingertips. An extension of improving communication is opening up opportunities for CPD – is there a way, as a school, you can include local supply candidates in your staff CPD sessions and invest in their professional development whilst also establishing positive, local relationships?

Rethink how we choose to engage supply staff and evaluate whether alternative models can enable long term sustainability

Why do we leave it to the last minute to arrange cover, and then blindly outsource it – even if it’s a long term vacancy? What if there were a pool of local teachers and support staff who we already knew, and were already warmed up when we had a short notice or longer term vacancy? Why don’t we plan in advance to have flex in the workforce? What if we opened up the possibility of job shares so work could fit around local supply teachers’ schedules? Whose responsibility would it be to manage a local pool of staff, and what would the payoff be both financially and in the long term sustainability of the local workforce?

Outsourcing supply procurement to agencies and others has superficial, short term benefits (to be frank, one key one that we have observed is that it minimises internal accountability for quality of staff by having a third party absorb this),  but in the long-term fixes nothing. Several models of outsourced provision are available, from direct-to-agency sourcing to Neutral and Master Vendor models for school groups. 

Neutral Vendor models, where a third party manages a chain of agencies to provide staff – and gives a school group a single point of contact – are typically not sector-specialised, so in actuality can add layers of bureaucracy and misunderstanding into the supply chain that erode trust and quality of provision through unsuitable matches. They can work in high volume, non-specialised sectors. But in education, we’re looking for highly skilled specialists, ideally for repeat bookings, often on a one-by-one basis – we’re not providing 100 bar staff for a one-off sporting event.

Master Vendors – essentially the same model as a Neutral Vendor but where the single point of contact is itself a sector-specific agency – are flawed too, but in a different way. In education, Master Vendor supply and recruitment contracts with school groups are too often awarded based on the total cost of a worker to the school across a few worker categories rather than on any real evaluation of quality of service or provision.

For a prime example of a Master Vendor provider whose approach to winning a contract via the lowballing method ultimately did a massive disservice to everyone involved, look no further than the award of managing the National Tutoring Programme to Randstad, who hugely undercut the competition on the cost element of the procurement exercise. The award of the contract to Randstad has been labelled a national scandal and termed as ‘the worst sort of bargain-basement capitalism’.

For Master Vendor providers bidding for a supply provision contract scored in this way (cost as an over-weighted evaluation criteria), the only way to ensure total cost remains low (and therefore win the contract), after they’ve added their fee to the supply chain, is to squeeze teacher pay. Agencies won’t budge on their fee because they know that they actually have the volume required by the MV to fulfil the contract; the MV has to make their fee; and so the only cost left to squeeze is worker pay.

So again, workers – who are not themselves involved in the bidding process – are the ones who lose out on a random, ad hoc basis (gross pay rates negotiated job-by-job) whilst everyone else’s fee is protected by a central contract. Because of this inevitable poor treatment of workers, churn is high and consistency of provision is poor. So in terms of outcomes, this is too often not a sustainable model and is hardly likely to attract workers to work at, and stay with, schools in your MAT or LA.

In terms of delivery, the majority of Neutral Vendor and Master Vendor providers have built businesses on third party CRM platforms (most commonly Salesforce, or in some cases a recruitment-specific CRM), and then simply bolted on other bits of technology ad hoc, including, in some instances, an app for staff to manage availability and bookings and a portal for employers to post jobs. 

But due to the way these various elements are cobbled together, the resulting network of systems is

  • a) not designed with the end user in mind, resulting in a poor user experience, poor uptake from frontline staff and a tendency to revert to analogue, unscaleable methods of resourcing; and
  • b) not futureproofed – systems being entirely reliant on generalist external software providers and attempting to adapt to changing requirements by adding a host of off-the-shelf add-ons back themselves into a corner where they cannot respond dynamically to customer needs, and quickly become unfit for purpose.

The various models currently available to contracting authorities are commercially outdated, poorly delivered, and in the education sector are not fit for purpose as standalone solutions – though elements of each can be brought into a modern solution that meets the needs of workers, schools and central authorities.

A new approach is needed – here’s how we go about it

Councils and schools are budget constrained and, often, too pushed for time to deeply consider this ever-more crucial segment of the workforce. And the DfE can’t solve the problem of available temporary workforce and teacher supply by simply putting out a list of supply agencies because former teachers don’t want to register with supply agencies. 

So we’re calling now for a similar model to what has already been implemented in the NHS for Integrated Care Systems – dedicated, centralised grant funding for Local Authorities and Multi Academy Trusts to establish a local, flexible pool of temporary workers. In 2021 the NHS made available grant funding of up to £120,000 per ICS to set up a flexible worker pool, with an additional £150m made available for worker pay nationally. The funding was complemented by a digital supplier framework, shortlisting suppliers who can help ensure that the pools are set up for success through a range of sector-specific, custom built digital enablement tools.

Crucially, any positive steps taken to recalibrate our approach to temporary recruitment in schools at scale needs to simplify processes and reduce administrative cost to ensure value for money is attained. This means making the supply chain shorter, not longer. As mentioned above, Neutral/Master Vendor models actually make the supply chain longer, adding more people into the requisition process, and therefore adding extra layers of cost. The approach moving forwards needs to be self-service at the school level and governed at the MAT/LA or even higher level. For that to work, you need a modern, user-friendly and highly customisable technology system that can be easily adapted to suit an organisation’s workflows and requirements, and is straightforward for temporary workers to use as well. Anything less than that – something that works for all stakeholders – and it simply won’t be used.

Long term rebalancing of the sector

As a sector we need less fragmentation and more high quality school staff in local, flexible working supply pools — so how do we get there?

  • As a school leader, speak to your Local Authority or MAT – ask them to start building a pool of staff for your, and other, local schools. Local Authorities will already have ongoing recruitment processes in place for temporary workers in other sectors e.g. social care or in NHS ICS’s as described above, so a pool of temporary staff for education is conceptually just an extension of an existing service – and, as detailed above, engagement in these LA departments can help form the case for grant funding to make the project possible at the school group level. An example of taking action was evidenced at the national scale in Wales recently when the Trades Union Congress wrote directly to the Minister for Education detailing the benefits and feasibility of setting up local supply pools. If the Authority won’t engage, make a pool yourself on the school level. This can be set up in 5 minutes at no cost or administrative outlay to you using a tool like Teacher Booker’s Talent Pools.
  • Commit to understanding temporary worker pay and conditions. Imagine if, as a permanent employee in a school, you lost 15-20% of your promised income every year paying your employer’s NI taxes even before you’ve paid your own NI and income tax? That’s the day-to-day reality for most jobbing temporary workers in schools who are forced to be paid via umbrella companies. We mustn’t stand for this any longer.
  • Embrace flexible working and advertise opportunities as ‘job shares considered’. This will help with talent attraction, and managing the day-to-day process and logistics of job sharing may not be as difficult as you think. There are plenty of resources, case studies and  advisory pieces available to assist with your strategic plan to implement more flexible working at scale.
  • Ensure you’re using specific, aspirational and respectful language in requisitions and job advertising, and add in flexibility to your offer that will engage rather than alienate. For example, rather than ‘we are looking for a supply teacher with excellent behaviour management’ try ‘we are looking for a part-time behaviour management specialist on a temporary basis and will pay dependent on experience’. Additionally,  ensure that the language used in temporary requisitions promotes inclusion, equality and diversity in the same way that permanent job postings do.

Get in touch to find out how we can support you to reach your talent attraction and flexible workforce objectives at scale

Some challenges that contracting authorities may experience when re-considering how their temporary workforce provision functions are perception-based, some are accountability-based and some are logistics-based. Through our experience of successfully implementing self-service temporary workforce solutions at scale we can help contracting authorities realise their goals on all these fronts.

The future of workforce provision in schools must be sustainable, cost effective and simplified in order to secure the best educational outcomes for the children whose education has been so severely disrupted over the past two years, and for those who come after them. We must better engage and look after this valuable segment of the education sector’s overall workforce, and it’s time to take action in pursuit of that aim now.

At Teacher Booker we are committed to changing education recruitment for the better. Get in touch below to find out how we can help your school, MAT or Local Authority to #FixSupplyTeaching for good.

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