‘Not enough supply staff’ to plug teacher strike gaps, warn agencies

Agencies question proposed new laws letting temporary workers fill in for striking staff

Agencies question proposed new laws letting temporary workers fill in for striking staff


Proposed legislation that would allow supply staff to plug gaps if teachers go on strike is “not feasible”, over-stretched agencies say, with some already “turning down 200 bookings a week”.

The National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT teaching union say they will ballot members for strike action if teachers do not receive an inflation-busting rise next year. Inflation has soared to more than 9 per cent this year.

It seems likely that the school teachers’ review body (STRB) will offer an 8.9 per cent rise to starting salaries next year, but only a 3 per cent rise for most teachers and leaders.

At the weekend it was reported that the government was drawing up plans to change the law so businesses can use agency workers to cover for striking staff.

This is currently illegal in schools, but the government wants to change the rules following recent industrial action by rail workers in the RMT. The Telegraph reported this would allow an “army” of supply teachers to fill in.

Supply agencies told Schools Week, however, that even if the law did change, they are already over-stretched and unable to cope with demand.

‘Simply not enough staff available’

Katy Rees, from Smile Education, said there were “just not enough supply teachers available to create this ‘army’, and that’s without getting into the moral dilemma”.

“In the peak times this year we were turning down up to 200 bookings a week because there simply weren’t enough staff.”

The UK has an estimated 90,000 supply staff, compared with more than 460,000 full-time teachers in England alone.

Jeanette Holder, the managing director of Athona, said all its teachers were already working, “but without permanent colleagues around, schools would simply not be able to cope”.

Some agencies pointed to the failure of a recent drive to get former teachers back into the classroom to cover Covid absences.

A recent DfE survey found teachers returned to the profession in just 2 per cent of schools. Of the 13 schools that took them on, eight said the teachers helped to reduce pressure to some extent, while five said they had not helped at all.

Supply teachers ‘already feel exploited’

Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU, said the proposal was “yet another example of sabre-rattling by a government that has been unable to summon volunteers in the past”.

“We do not expect this latest wheeze to play out any differently. Supply teachers already feel exploited, without the government then adding insult to injury.”

NASUWT teachers vaccine pay strike
Dr Patrick Roach

Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said the government’s contempt for the rights of working people “is all too evident in these latest proposals to incite employers to deploy agency workers to undermine legitimate industrial action”.

Marios Georgiou, from Step Teachers, said teachers were threatening to strike against a “background of shortage and disenfranchisement, and a cost of living crisis”.

The hope that supply teachers could “keep schools open” was not realistic. “We have struggled all year to meet demand from our schools.”

Samantha Dyson, from Key Education, said the drive was “not feasible. The majority of our teachers are booked and the ones that are not are generally booked on the day. We are not able to fulfil all of our schools’ requirements.”

Gavin Beart, the divisional managing director for education at Reed, said “many staff” were already placed for September.

“Seventy-five per cent of our current talent pool nationally at any one time is working.”

Few would cross strike picket lines

In a letter to Nadhim Zahawi this week, Niall Bradley, the chair of the National Supply Teachers Network, said most of the network were members of teaching unions.

The education secretary said last week that a teacher strike would be “unforgivable” in the wake of Covid.

In a recent poll, 92 per cent of supply staff said they would not go to school during a strike, while only 3 per cent said they would. Bradley said 3 per cent of supply teachers nationally would amount to an “army” of 2,700.

“So please, do not denigrate supply teachers any further in the eyes of our permanent colleagues by suggesting we would help to break their strike, should it go ahead.”

Covid disruption means demand for supply teachers is still high. The latest attendance statistics shows overall absence rose to 6.5 per cent among teachers and leaders and 5.5 per cent among support staff last week.

Teacher absence has remained above 5 per cent since last September.

Correction: We made clear it is not the government’s plan for an “army” of supply teachers to fill in for striking teachers. Ministers are proposing to change the law so agency workers can fill in for striking staff across all sectors, which would also include schools.

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