On Saturday, a packed NUT Supply Teachers' Conference met at the National Union's HQ, Hamilton House, to discuss how to defend and organise one of the most vulnerable and exploited sections of the Union.
It was an angry Conference. Many supply teachers - although many felt that perhaps a more supportive term like 'visiting teachers' should be used - clearly felt isolated and unsupported. However, by the end of the meeting, I think that delegates left feeling that important steps had been made in starting to pull together a network of teachers and in starting to rebuild our campaign against their exploitation.
With Gove and his advisers discussing whether they can get away with 'schools-for-profit', the effect on staff of the privatisation of supply teacher agencies should be a warning to every teacher. Long before 'pay portability' became an issue for permanent staff, supply teachers have already faced a 'race to the bottom' as unregulated agencies try to hire their labour as cheaply as possible to make maximum profit.
As Kevin Courtney pointed out, very few supply teachers are now employed through Local Authorities or on the national rates of pay according to the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD). The use of cover supervisors and teaching assistants to cover absences has tended to push rates of pay even lower.
The Union has won some legal challenges, for example winning compensation for some overseas teachers employed through Teaching Personnel. Nevertheless, Teaching Personnel's profits rose from £4.5M in 2008 to around £8M in 2010. It was also pointed out how Capita, a big donor to new Labour, had ended up being able to profiteer out of CRB checks and had set up a supply agency too.
For the agencies, this is a highly profitable business. In the London workshop that I chaired, it seemed that a typical daily pay rate would be around £120 but with the agency charging the school £180 or more - a 50% mark-up. If a school want to then recruit the teacher to a permanent vacancy, the agencies also charge schools extortionate 'finders- fees' of a £1,000 or more.
A minority of teachers in the workshop were getting paid at the proper STPCD equivalent of, for an Inner London UPS3 teacher, £231 per day. That sounds like a high salary but, it has to be remembered, this is based on a working year of only 195 days, with no holiday or sick pay. Even these teachers were still exploited in other ways such as a lack of access to training and, in particular, the Teachers' Pension Scheme.
Other teachers, sometimes sole bread-winners desperate for work, were being paid far less. One Surrey teacher was being paid just £88 per day. Even within the same agency, teachers were sometimes being paid widely differing rates of pay as, unless teachers pushed for a better rate for themselves, agencies would pay the least they could get away with. Some teachers also had to pay over and over again for charges for CRB criminal record checks.
While some supply teachers were enjoying their work and had deliberately opted for this kind of more flexible employment, many others had been driven to it through discrimination and bullying forcing them into this vulnerable and unreliable source of income.
A debate started, which needs to continue, about how we can persuade schools to use alternatives to agencies. Some suggested that teachers set up their own co-operatives, undercutting the agencies simply by undercutting their huge additional commission charges. However, even co-operatives will be subject to the 'laws of the market' and the Union will also continue to demand that teachers are employed directly through Local Authority or school supply -pools.
What certainly needs to be done is for the NUT to expose the agencies' profiteering racket. There is certainly an opportunity for some stunts and lobbies to 'out' the worst culprits and get the story in the headlines. One workshop suggested that a 'comparison website' ( perhaps 'confusedteacher.com' !) could be set-up to publicise the rip-off - and to arm visiting teachers with the information they need to avoid the worst exploitation.
This was one of many suggestions that came out of the day. Others included campaigning to make sure schools provided basic information, site-plans etc to visiting teachers, and also the need to expose the use of non-qualified staff to teach children 'on-the-cheap'. One supply teacher told me how she'd been used to take classes from the playground in the morning and return them at the end of the day to make it seem to parents that their class was being covered by a teacher. In fact, in between times, the class had been covered by a TA!
Organisation will now be key. It was agreed that a further Supply Teachers' Conference must be held next year. Local and national networks to bring teachers together must now also be urgently developed. The NUT must also publicise and inform the whole Union of the need to support supply colleagues - and to warn all teachers of the dire consequences, to both staff and children, of running education for a profit.
(... and thanks to Leeds and Merton NUT for adding their names to the list of Associations nominating me to stand for NUT Vice-President at their meetings last week )