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Education: Supply Teachers

Volume 810: debated on Monday 22 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the proportion of teaching posts in (1) London, and (2) elsewhere in England, which are currently being filled by supply teacher agencies.

[Inaudible]—perform a valuable role and make an important contribution to the running of schools by covering temporary staff absences. The department does not hold data on the proportion of teaching posts provided by supply teacher agencies. School leaders have autonomy over workforce planning, including how they manage absences. The department has provided guidance to schools on ways to manage absences, including the use of supply staff.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Teaching is becoming part of the gig economy. Head teachers and school governors faced with limited budgets are unwilling to employ new teachers on a permanent basis. By recruiting teachers from agencies, they can avoid paying pension contributions and sickness benefits and they can more easily dismiss the teachers when faced with financial difficulties. The agencies typically take fees of at least £100 per week from teachers’ pay. These circumstances are making teaching an unattractive career choice and threaten to undermine the standards of teaching. What, if anything, are the Government doing to address them?

My Lords, the Government are investing £2.6 billion in school budgets this year. In relation to supply teachers, the Government have entered into an arrangement, involving the Crown Commercial Service, to help schools to use teacher agencies and to make the fees transparent. It is clear that any teacher from an agency regulated by BEIS who is employed for 12 weeks becomes a permanent member of staff with all the entitlements that that gives them.

My Lords, I am grateful that my noble friend acknowledges the role that the flexible workforce has played during the pandemic, but I echo the request from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that we set out to make sure that these people are well treated, that their rights are protected and that, in offering an efficient and value-for-money service, we build for them a good career structure.

My Lords, indeed, this is a regulated sector. Employers—namely, schools—and agency workers make use of this arrangement, and many teaching staff who are coming to the end of their career and who want to work in this flexible way take advantage of it. It is an advantage to the agency staff that they can choose to work one day or one week out of three and, as I said, it is particularly attractive to those ending their career, but of course there are protections to balance the advantages for the employee and those for the employer.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of what Matt Hancock said yesterday about vaccinating teachers. If the Government reconsider, will they ensure that supply teachers are not overlooked? Moving around, they are in a particularly vulnerable position, which is one very good reason why teachers should be vaccinated before any full return.

My Lords, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation asked for a cross-governmental response on occupational vaccination and the department responded to that. I can assure the noble Earl that that was for the entire education workforce and that representation included all people, temporary and permanent, including those in early years.

My Lords, the school workforce census for the 2016 cohort shows that more than a quarter of teachers left teaching in the early years of their career. The loss of one in four teachers within three years speaks volumes about the difficulty and problems involved in retaining teachers. What plans do the Government have to address this workforce recruitment problem—looking at workload, among other things—to ensure that we have enough teachers to fill all the posts in schools on a permanent basis rather than relying on supply teachers, who already have an important role to play providing short-term cover?

The noble Baroness is correct that we want to retain the talented teachers whom we recruit each year. We are delighted that there has been an increase in recruitment this year of 23%. The early career framework should address the issues that she outlined: a one-year initial teacher training followed by two years of professional development support. That begins in September this year. Schools will be required to deliver that to put teaching on a par with the professional development that is offered by professions such as law and medicine. It will enable new teachers to have mentoring and time out of the classroom and to be introduced in a gradual way and supported into the workforce.

My Lords, the substantial increase in teacher workload means that many schools have to have recourse to supply teachers. Unlike the old local authority system, under which I had some of my most taxing supply teaching experiences, private supply agencies are creaming off teachers and scarce school funds. What plans do the Government have to rectify this, to ensure better pay and conditions for supply teachers while making sure that schools retain money for essential use?

My Lords, we trust school leaders to make workforce arrangements. Some schools, particularly multi-academy trusts, choose to employ supply teachers and some local authorities still run a pool supply service. As I have outlined, the agency supply deal means that there is transparency of fees and the arrangements are clear to schools, particularly when a teacher goes from a 12-week period of being temporary to being entitled to be permanent. So there is transparency—113 agencies have signed up to this deal, which we have made available to schools to help them to buy well and ensure the necessary transparency.

My Lords, the DfE has issued advice to schools not to lay off supply staff and to ensure that safety arrangements allow them to continue to be employed where needed. This has not prevented some schools from dispensing with supply teachers, placing additional pressure on permanent staff to cover for absent colleagues. The DfE advice is aimed equally at schools that engage staff directly and those that engage via agencies. The principle is the same—they should continue to employ and continue to pay—but there is no means of enforcement. Will the DfE now re-emphasise its advice to schools not to lay off supply staff?

The noble Lord is correct that the school budgets that have been paid regardless of the opening or closing of schools mean that those supply staff who are direct employees should continue to be employed during this period. However, for those who are employed by agencies, the guidance is for schools to try to continue to use those supply teachers, but of course the employer is the agency. If those supply teachers are not used, there is the possibility of furlough, but that is obviously a decision for the employers. We have made a wide range of support available for agency supply teachers, but the arrangements obviously depend on whether they are a direct employee of the school or from an agency. The guidance helps schools to treat their workforce fairly.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the teacher shortages in London are in large part due to the cost of housing in the capital? Does she consider that the pandemic will be a factor in making the situation worse?

My Lords, certain areas of the country have shortages of teachers, particularly in some subjects. If those shortages relate to maths, chemistry, physics or computing, substantial bursaries of £24,000 are available to meet that shortfall. We are aware of population movement due to the pandemic and I assure the noble Lord that we are working as quickly as we can to see where this has taken place to ensure adequate school places.

My Lords, given the finding of the Migration Advisory Committee that modern foreign language teaching is a shortage occupation, will the Government commission research and data collection to show whether there is a disproportionate recourse to supply teachers for MFL, what level of difficulty is experienced by agencies in providing them and what impact this has on the take-up of teaching and learning languages?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. A shortage has been identified in modern foreign languages, but we are seeking to address it by recruiting more permanent modern foreign language teachers. There are 1,687 new modern foreign language teachers in the new cohort. A bursary of £10,000 is available in shortage areas, as well as other arrangements. We have identified 25 local authority areas where modern foreign language teachers can reclaim student loan repayments as part of a way of encouraging them to work in those areas.

My Lords, given their commitment to a recovery programme to try to reduce the number of children who may never catch up following the school closures, will the Government ensure that supply teachers are available to contribute, given the pressures that there will be on permanent teaching staff? Will the Minister tell the House whether the necessary online training will be provided for supply teachers taking part in this programme and how such training might be resourced?

My Lords, the guidance to schools helps them in this time of fluctuating staff absences to address their workforce issues. In particular, it draws attention to the use of supply teachers. Many resources are available, including teacher resources on the Oak National Academy, the remote platform with video lessons for all teaching staff. We are encouraging school leaders to make use of agency staff as and when they are needed to ensure the appropriate level of workforce in their schools.