Tag Archives: supply teaching

The Farce Awakens

I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further. (Darth Vader, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.)

A long time ago, Mrs Allardyce and I were selected to work for an international development organisation. A year of pre-departure training followed, during which our overseas posting was confirmed. We never reached it, however: the loss of someone close to us, a terminal diagnosis for another, and a political turn for the worse in our country of destination combined to scupper the outcome for which we’d left jobs and given up our home.

The fact that our plans didn’t come to fruition may well have been for the best, given our concern at the way goalposts were incrementally shifted during the training period. For instance, it became apparent, gradually, that the person specification for volunteers  – which, with its emphasis on resilience, initiative and problem solving, had seemed like so much good sense at first – was, in fact, treated as a Get Out Of Jail Free card by an institution that promised support, but could rarely be arsed to deliver it.

Similarly, its triangular model of co-operation turned out to be less equilateral than vaunted, and more isosceles, with two, identically-long sides placing overseas ‘partners’ and volunteers in a galaxy far, far below the apex occupied by the organisation. Prevented, at the time, from speaking or writing as they saw, a number of these co-operators have since verified that they were anything but.

It’s a blast I’ve disinterred from the past for two reasons. The first, and minor, one is that the body concerned was able to act as it did because it was assumed to be essentially altruistic. In the word association game of public perception, ‘development’ and ‘charity’ are rarely connected with ‘business’; so, too, ‘school’, although a closer look may reveal otherwise. The second reason is that stealthy redefinitions have been infiltrating education for some time and, often, with comparable effect. Just ask the staff who find that the Teacher Standards to which they are held also, handily, enable those in positions of responsibility to abdicate all, um, responsibility.

Similar sleights mean that a former colleague heads a department in which he is still the only subject specialist. The rest of his team – assembled, by management, with reference to neither students’ needs nor his preferences – comprises this year’s jumble of supply teachers and ‘under-timetabled’ colleagues from distant faculties. Press-ganged into delivering a subject of which they know about an ounce more than nothing, all are held as responsible for student outcomes as veteran experts would be.

None of them, however, has any right of reply because of the shifting definition attached to Qualified Teacher Status. Way back in the last century, when I was awarded my PGCE, my expertise was circumscribed: I was qualified to teach a particular subject, at a particular level, and no more unless agreed otherwise. ‘QTS’ now appears to mean that one is qualified to teach any subject whatsoever at any level whatsoever, as decreed by the senior team’s Knights of Ren.

There are, admittedly, a few of my acquaintance who could turn their hands to manything, but they’re rarities. More common are those who are highly capable within their specialisms, but become less so the further afield they’re forced to venture. The potential detriment they, therefore, pose to their students’ education makes placing said staff on career-annihilating support programmes a matter of little difficulty and, if expedient, absolute necessity. Nothing less will do, when faced with an inability to shape-shift at short notice and with minimal assistance.

Whether forced to leave, or deciding to do so to avoid dismissal, many teachers subsequently register with supply agencies. As anyone who’s earwigged at the office door knows, these can charge schools a great deal of money for securing temporary staff, a.k.a. making a couple of phone calls. Indeed, when recruitment prospects look as parched as Tatooine’s landscape, the price for this service can escalate considerably – a big ask for any school facing financial, as well as staffing, challenges.

However, certain practices, highlighted by recent reports, suggest that some supply agencies are colluding with schools to exploit temporary staff, aided by the canny application of misnomers. Lower-paid ‘cover supervisor’ positions that, by the miracle of modern semantics, morph into substantive teaching roles, is one such commonplace. It’s the ‘trial day’, however, that represents the nadir of this collaboration, guaranteeing that, even when budgets are tight at schools, agencies still get their fees by ensuring that teachers don’t.

This try-before-you-buy practice – usually sold by dangling the possibility of paid work at its end – could be called, with equal accuracy, ‘qualified professionals working for nothing’. Though initially confined to a day or two, ‘trial days’ soon became ‘trial weeks/fortnights’, at the end of which schools almost invariably opted to try someone else. I’ve recently heard of an agency that asks those on its books to undertake a three-month trial period which, I believe, is also called ‘a term’.

Such a system means that the agency need expend little effort to secure a year’s worth of gratis teaching for a client school. If its database is crammed with staff in desperate need of post-capability references, the ease with which ‘mug-off’ can be disguised as ‘vocation’ is even greater. It’s a process most evident when employers recruiting through agencies (ones that are adept at keeping mum) get around to revealing their vision.

Interviewer: Well, that all seems to be in order. One last point: are you expecting to be paid in return for this exponentially increasing workload?

Interviewee: Yes, I am.

Interviewer: Well, that’s unfortunate. You see, we envisage this as an opportunity for you to give something back…

And so, we arrive at Teach Again, an enterprise that could single-handedly secure the supersession of ‘venture capital’ by ‘unbelievable shamelessness’. Teach Again charges experienced, qualified teachers £600; in return, it secures them year-long positions as school volunteers. Translation: applicants are invited to pay for being unpaid. At the end of the year, participant schools – of which there are, oddly, many – provide their volunteers with references, thus enabling them to apply for other jobs which, as we now know, may or may not be remunerated. The option of extending volunteers’ placements beyond a year also allows schools to defer the provision of references until such time as suits the Sith Order their SLTs or trustee boards.

Today’s CPD task is to draft the interviewee’s response. Pay attention to the context in which this dialogue occurs, and ensure, if possible, that the retort cuts like a light-saber.

Translation: “You’re going to regret this.” (Princess Leia Organa, Star Wars Episode VI: The Return Of The Jedi.)




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.