Opinion: Ignore me, I'm only a supply teacher

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'W here does one get a cup of coffee around here?' I asked a teacher passing through the staff room. 'No idea,' he replied. Not an unusual experience in an agency supply teacher's day. There's a sort of transparency of existence -nameless, I seem to be unseeable, unseen, unfeeling and unfelt.

It was a fill-in job. I had a gap between my immediate past - life and work in Western Australia - and my imminent future with Voluntary Service Overseas. So I entered secondary school supply teaching.

Teaching supply agencies advertise in the free magazines for overseas travellers. Local authorities were unable to offer immediate work and I answered an advertisement promising pounds 75 a day working with the 'most professional team of supply teachers'.

I had a pleasant, if cursory, interview in smart offices in north London.

The interviewer assured me of work, gave me pay claim forms, agency rules and codes of behaviour, introduced me to her colleagues and found me a placement.

Once started, supplies phone in for work for the following day from about lunchtime until a job becomes available. If you are 'teaching' during the day, contact is difficult. Longer-term placements may also be found.

My first placement was at a smart sixth-form college in east London.

Seventeen supplies had been booked: I was not on the list. When contacted, the agency said it would pay me for half a day. After I protested it was their foul up they reconsidered and eventually paid in full.

I was told that another school in south London was MLD (mild learning difficulties). On arrival, I discovered it was EBD (emotionally and behaviourally disturbed). I had inadequate experience and was ready to leave.

Prevailed upon to stay, there being no one else, I endured an extraordinary experience: youths literally hanging from the rafters while I gazed on helplessly.

Supply teachers are considered incompetent and inadequate, simply by nature of their tag. In any school, the children look up and see you coming. You know little of the school, system, sanctions, protection, resources, exits, lesson lengths and content - the things that give a 'real' teacher the armoury to survive. A supply is denied professional and personal dignity and a decent day's pay.

It works like this. The agreed rate for a day's supply is pounds 108. In addition, an authority or school employing directly also has extra costs, such as national insurance. The 'real' cost is more than pounds 123 a day.

An agency charges schools a supply day's pay, subtracts the added costs and gives the supply pounds 75. It is a flat rate, whatever the school.

Under-resourced institutions are further disadvantaged under this system.

Schools know nothing of the supply, and she or he little of the system where they are working. Agencies tend to be reluctant to offer information.

With profit the agency's raison d'etre, it pays lip service to the pursuit of quality. My interviewer was amazed I was British. Almost all the other supplies I met were antipodean travellers seeking money on a working holiday.

At one EBD school, half the staff were on long-term sick leave, and the place was run by non-British agency supplies. I found myself 'supporting' a young man who had been in the country for a fortnight and was gaining 'great experience'. At home he is not licensed to do such work.

With no direct contractual obligation, neither party invests. Arriving at the office door of one school, I was curtly told to take an indicated box of stationery and go to room 12. There were not even courtesies, directions or basic information. Elsewhere, doors to classrooms were locked and no keys supplied.

The result is a downward spiral of incompetence and neglect bred by 'getting value for money'. Briefing of supplies is almost non- existent. Frequently, no work is set and available materials are incorrect or inadequate.

Privatisation of supply teaching is a small corner of education provision that is impoverishing the next generation while enriching entrepreneurial types who milk the system, not only of its money but also its soul.