Exercising Your Agency

Yesterday, I received another call from another recruitment consultant based at another of the myriad agencies at which I’ve never signed on a dotted line – the reason why I spend so much time, these days, saying “Who are you? Who? Who? Who? WHO?” into the phone. These tiresomely frequent exchanges have, usually, been prompted by an ancient CV I retrieved from the floor of the litter tray, back when I worked as an in-school tutor under a (very effective and, therefore, now-defunct) government scheme. It appears that this centuries-out-of-date document was released into the etherspace at some point, without my permission, since when it has been ricocheting around like one of Tommy’s ballbearings. Why anyone would want to follow it home is beyond me but there’s nowt as strange as folk paid on commission.

 Just in case back-to-back phone calls are insufficient, my inbox is stuffed with similar missives: expressing disinterest in services offered via one medium apparently does little to shake the belief that you might fall for the same in another. In a tone of chummy familiarity, inversely proportional to my knowledge of who the billybobthornton is contacting me, most of these messages are garbled enough to suggest that their authors are primarily conversant with SPaG as an option at the local trattoria.

Displaying an impressive level of chutzpah/dearth of self-awareness, outstanding levels of literacy are demanded of candidates, so that they can work in allegedly outstanding schools for outstandingly poor remuneration. On a couple of occasions, a polite statement that no, thank you, I am not looking for work has been met with an aggressively-delivered “Why not?”. On others, volunteering that I do, indeed, still work in education, albeit through my own business, has led to sweaty-palmed attempts to determine whether I’ve set up a rival supply agency. When feeling wicked, the answer is a mendacious but amusing “Yes”.

A scan of the jobs pages in teachers’ publications suggests that vacancies are scarce. The wellest-worn line of argument is that staff, facing the straits of pay reform and managerial miserliness, are fearful of jumping ship, even when the vessel’s called Titanic Academy or somesuch. We also know that there are schools in which senior managers obviate the need to replace departing staff by distributing the abandoned timetable between those still aboard.

However, according to the agencies, such is the volume and variety of posts available that they positively pour from every, um, pore. Initially, I took this hyperbole as no more than a bait-shaped fib, duping punters into mistaking a couple of sorry-looking minnows in a puddle for Daltrey’s teeming lakes of trout (“Ah, ha! Y’are caught.”). But instead of persisting with this carp, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there’s something in the agencies’ claims of quantity. Only yesterday, Sir Clint Wilshaw stated on Today that the number of teacher vacancies has doubled over the last five years, so the opportunities really might be more big fish than little fish. Or cardboard box.

Which brings me to, what I’m told is, the phrase du jour: ‘the gig economy’. Contrary to first assumptions, this involves neither those chaps outside Brixton Station re-flogging marked-up tickets for the latest whoever, nor their friends doing the same online. Rather, it refers to a world of fixed-term contracts and independent workers – or, to put it another way, the mainstays of those supply agencies that oblige the poor sods on their books to set themselves up as self-employed operators. It’s not often that the education sector is ahead of the curve; on this occasion, I wish it wasn’t.

As its defenders maintain, the gig economy offers flexibilities that permanent employment does not. If you’re one of those teachers anxious to catch themselves some of that work-life balance stuff (that’ll be all of them, then), shorter-term contracts with fewer responsibilities can seem a viable way of achieving this. And there are other advantages: variety, as one moves from school to school; autonomy, as one exercises the right to refuse further bookings at Stonefish Community College; the opportunity to get the true measure of a school, without being shackled to its radiators first; the ability to take holidays during term time; the right to curtail bookings at short notice. Not so much a gig as a veritable festival of perks.

There are, of course, less boastworthy sides to all of this: no sick or holiday pay, no paid parental leave, no employers’ contributions to pension schemes and National Insurance – all facts to gladden the heart of the tighter-fisted school manager; the speed with which the non-committals of supply morph into expectations that all the responsibilities of a permanent employee will be shouldered for a fraction of the pay, as ever-heftier proportions of the agency’s fee slide into its, rather than your, coffers. Lest we forget, there’s also the commonplace requirement to accept the Swedish Derogation, obliging agency staff to forego the improved pay rates to which they’re entitled after twelve weeks’ employment; the pressure some consultants exert, to take every booking offered, by treating refusal as grounds for rustication; the fact that dismissal can occur at the same very short notice I cited as an advantage; and the embarrassingly disdainful behaviour of some permanent school staff towards their temporary counterparts…

…most of which demonstrate that, for the gig economy’s impresarios, education is primarily, if not only, a source of quick bucks for minimal input. I know of several schools in which supply teachers significantly outnumber permanent staff – the places where unbearable working practices, the forcing out of experienced personnel, and the plethora of WRS cases both of the above tend to generate have resulted in numerous vacancies. (So, no, Mr Wilshaw, the staffing crisis is not, as you claimed on Today, the fault of insufficiently enticing publicity campaigns; it’s an avoidance strategy, adopted by those who understand that teaching, in its present incarnation, is a job best avoided.)

Fishiest of all are those instances when erstwhile permanent teachers, deemed irrevocably incompetent before being dismissed or coerced into resigning, are snapped up once they become available on daily supply rates, without all those distracting on-costs. I’m waiting for the day when a school knowingly re-employs, through an agency, a teacher it previously ‘managed out’. Or perhaps that’s happened already? And it’s surely only a matter of time before we discover that some ubermensch at an academy chain is also a supply agency proprietor, signing up the same staff s/he shoved overboard as discards.

Its demands can make supply a tough gig. Dispensing with the middlemen enables those so inclined to offer their services directly to schools, thereby earning more while charging schools less. Not a win-win exactly, I’ll concede – many of the insecurities still apply – but closer to. And, if nothing else, you won’t get fooled again. Hopefully.

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About Joe Allardyce

Joe Allardyce has been a teacher for more than fifteen years. State and private; secondary and primary; man and woman: Joe has been there. Perhaps not the last one. View all posts by Joe Allardyce

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