ASCL survey reveals soaring cost of supply teachers

A survey of secondary school headteachers has found that more than 70% have increased their spending on agency supply teachers over the past three years and that the teacher recruitment crisis is a major factor in driving up costs

The survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) shows that many schools have to use agency supply staff not just to provide cover for teacher absence but because they are struggling to recruit permanent teachers.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton, speaking on Saturday at ASCL’s annual conference in Birmingham about the urgent need to improve teacher recruitment and retention.

The survey of 322 headteachers of state-sector secondary schools in England found that almost all of them (97%) have used agency supply teachers in the past 12 months, and that two thirds (66%) have had to do so to cover vacancies caused by difficulty in recruiting permanent staff.

The survey also shows:

  • 71% (228 respondents) said they have had to increase or significantly increase the amount they spend on agency supply teachers over the past three years.
  • The main reasons for this increased expenditure were greater reliance upon supply agencies because of difficulties in recruiting permanent teachers, with 53% (171 respondents) citing this as a factor, and increased supply agency fees, with 54% (173 respondents) saying this was a factor.
  • 82% (264 respondents) said the daily rate for hiring an agency supply teacher was more expensive than it would cost for an equivalent permanent teacher, and 42% (135 respondents) said it was over 10% more expensive.
  • 74% (237 respondents) spent between one per cent and five per cent of their school budget on agency supply teachers over the past 12 months. Nearly a fifth (17%) spent between six per cent and 10%. In an average-size secondary on minimum funding in 2018-19 that equates to between £261,000 and £435,000. Nineteen respondents spent more than 10%.

ASCL has also been concerned for some time that recruitment agencies are encouraging trainees on initial teacher training programmes to sign up with them rather than applying directly to schools. The trainees are then offered to schools – who will often be desperate for recruits – and a fee is charged to the school if the trainee is appointed.

In our survey, one third (33%) of headteachers said they were aware of trainees in their area being offered inducements to join agencies. Some headteachers said this took the form of agencies offering cash incentives, laptops and tablets, while others said agencies told trainees that signing with them guaranteed a job, and that it would be easier than applying to schools.

ASCL is calling on the government to take action over this issue by considering the scope for regulation and asking initial teacher training programme providers to advise trainees that they should not sign up with recruitment agencies.

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Schools are also charged a ‘finder’s fee’ if they want to take on an agency supply teacher as a full-time member of staff. Nearly three quarters of respondents (73%) said they had done so over the past 12 months, with 48% saying that the ‘finder’s fee’ had been £5,000 or more.

The government is planning to set up a pool of supply teacher agencies which follow standard levels of practice, including the use of ‘finder’s fees’, and which will be available to schools to use from September.

Figures from the Crown Commercial Service, which is developing this commercial framework, show the cost of hiring all types of supply teachers – agencies, local authority pools and directly hired – rose by 35% between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, 70% of this expenditure – £869m – was for supply teachers provided through agencies. (See editor’s notes for further details).

Many schools are experiencing significant difficulties in recruiting teachers. The government has missed its target for recruitment to initial teacher training programmes for secondary schools for the past five years in a row. In 2017/18, only 80% of the target was achieved, meaning a shortfall of 3,731 trainee teachers.

Over the next five years, many more teachers will be needed because the total number of pupils in England’s schools is expected to increase by 492,000 – with 391,000 more in secondary schools. (See editor’s notes for further details).

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: While there are good supply agencies which provide a valued service to schools, it is clear that charges and quality are variable and we welcome government plans to set up a pool of trusted agencies.

“We also desperately need a solution to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis which is driving up the use of supply teachers. Children must have permanent teachers who know them and understand their needs. It is also an exorbitant cost on schools, and the taxpayer, to have to fill vacancies in this way.

“We need a partnership between the government, school leaders and professional associations to find ways of making teaching a more attractive career. We must tackle high levels of teacher workload, improve career progression, adopt flexible working practices, tell a better and more positive story about the profession we love, and simplify routes into teaching.

“To the government’s credit, it has recognised these issues and is talking with ASCL about solutions. But there is a long way to go and we also urgently need action to improve teacher pay which has been badly hit by years of pay freezes and caps.”

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