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What opportunities are there for supply teachers?

Supply teachers play an important part in England's school system, allowing children's education to continue with as little disruption as possible when their usual teacher is off.

New research conducted by the Taxpayers Alliance found £293 million was spent on temporary staff in secondary schools in the financial year 2009 to 2010. This equates to around £100,000 per school and this has led to questions being raised about the opportunities available for supply teachers in the UK.

"Supply teachers are essential to ensuring that schools are able to cope with disruptions such as staff on sick or maternity leave, and there is no suggestion that they are not committed and talented teachers. Many parents are concerned when their children's classes are taken by a series of supply teachers instead of a regular teacher over a sustained period, though," the report said.

It found that supply teachers are more likely to be employed in schools within deprived areas and this was said to mean that it was the most disadvantaged children who are disproportionately affected by a lack of continuity within their education. A number of possible reasons for this were identified, including these institutions having more difficulty in attracting full-time members as staff and teachers at the school taking more time off sick.

But, no matter what the reasons were for the high number of classes being taught by supply teachers, the Alliance said pupils regularly being taught by temporary staff were at a disadvantage. "Supply teachers themselves are not the issue, but they necessarily tend to provide a less stable learning environment. That can be particularly difficult for children already struggling for some other reason," it added.

The Department for Education was rather vague in its stance on this view in its reaction to the report. "It is down to schools and local authorities to decide on their use of supply staff and ensure that taxpayers get value for money. Supply staff play a valuable role in providing schools with the cover they need, but it is important for children to have consistency in their learning," a spokesperson said.

Teaching unions, and no doubt the thousands of dedicated supply teachers in the UK, however have disputed the findings, which NASUWT says suggest pupils are being "short changed" when they're taught by temporary staff members.It could be argued that supply teachers have a greater understanding of the different ways in which to deliver lessons and engage with pupils because of the wide range of environments they have been working in.

Richard Ratcliff, a semi-retired supply teacher, told the Times Education Supplement, that knowing how to adapt to different situations is one of the greatest weapons in his arsenal. "You also need to have a different style for different types of school and children. If you’re in a grammar school, you’ve got to know your stuff. The kids will challenge you on your topic to see if you really know what you’re talking about," Mr Ratcliff said. "It's possible to teach any subject with a bit of imagination," he added.

A previous report by Ofsted has also found that those with the most experience are likely to find the greatest opportunities coming their way – particularly if they have previously had links with schools.  The study into 20 schools within deprived areas that were deemed to be succeeding against the odds found that many of these kept standards up by selecting temporary members of staff who were already familiar with their institution, rather than completely unknown supply teachers.

William Ford Junior School was named as a particular example of a well performing school which does not use "general" supply teachers. "The view of senior leaders is that this work is, if anything, more difficult than normal teaching and that you therefore need highly effective teaching staff to carry it out. The school has a number of well-qualified, experienced teachers who provide this cover for absence," the report stated.

The important thing to perhaps remember from all this evidence is that no one is disputing the skills of the supply teacher or the valuable role they play within the school system. What they are questioning is whether under the current system their unique skills are being applied within the right way, and this is an issue which those working in supply teaching could see influence the type of opportunities available to them in the future.