Steven Hahn, a Canadian teacher, first encountered the Quality Mark when he was trawling the internet for recruitment agencies that could find him a teaching job in England. He knew nothing about Quality Mark, but the fact that it had been awarded to an agency called Dream Education immediately focused his enquiries. "I had next to no information about other agencies, and coming cold from overseas, I wanted as much accreditation as I could get," he says.
Having unearthed some articles on the Quality Mark via the internet, Hahn contacted Dream Education, and was subjected to a lengthy and rigorous process of checks and cross-checks. The agency then matched him to a secondary school in Leeds, where he is now teaching English. "There were a lot of checks, including two police checks, and it could have seemed a hassle," says Hahn. "But it made me feel confident that I was in good hands: I would have been worried had they not been checking up on me."
The Quality Mark was launched by the Department for Education and Skills, in conjunction with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation in July 2002. Many supply teachers, and many heads looking to recruit them, have still not heard of it. Its aim is to protect the interests of supply teachers and the schools that use them, and to raise standards all round. "There can be misunderstandings between agencies and schools, leading to the wrong teacher being sent," says Marcia Roberts, the REC's deputy chief executive. "We wanted a way of differentiating between agencies. Post-Soham and tragic events of that kind, people are more concerned that teachers are recruited properly."
Until 10 years ago, teacher supply agencies were virtually non-existent. When a school needed cover, the head simply rang the local education authority and was given a list of names to telephone. But then a near-crisis in teacher recruitment across the country brought the first agencies into being, and these began to import teachers from abroad - from Commonwealth countries, where teaching styles were similar to the UK.
Others quickly jumped on the bandwagon, sensing a good business opportunity when they saw one - regardless of whether they had any relevant educational experience. Demand soared, and there are now between 120 and 150 supply agencies in this country, including 25 that operate nationally.
Geoff Brown, the director of education at Dream and a former head teacher, says there are a number of very small agencies operating that do not have the educational skills or knowledge to match supply teachers to appropriate schools. "We get many applicants from overseas who have taught in exclusive independent schools, where children get good exam results and behave impeccably. Put those teachers into an inner-city school in an Education Action Zone, with problem children, and it's not going to work," he says.
"The Quality Mark asks agencies to look very carefully at their policies and practices, and to set out on paper how they vet their teachers, how they match them to schools, and how they support them."
Out of 56 applications, 37 agencies have been awarded the Quality Mark to date. Making an application is voluntary and costs nothing, but it can be a lengthy process, taking anywhere from six weeks to seven months, according to Roberts. Agencies (or local education authorities) have to pass a range of tests to demonstrate how they recruit and interview supply teachers, how they check and manage them, and how they stay at the forefront of changes in the teaching profession. Criminal checks are key, as are identity and qualification checks, and agencies have to be able to prove that teachers from overseas have qualifications fully comparable with the UK system.
The process is undeniably "tough", says Kate Goodwin, proprietor of SOS Education Services in London, which received the Quality Mark last year. "But it sorts out the men from the boys, so to speak. Supply agencies have had a really bad reputation for producing poor-quality teachers and for not carrying out proper checks. The Quality Mark gives us some credibility for what we do; it's a way of recognising that we provide the best possible service."
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