- Written by Jenny Smith
November / December, 2013
This month’s blog has been more difficult than usual to write, as I have been more than a little preoccupied with the forthcoming arrival of our baby in only a couple more weeks. And, with a rapidly approaching due date on the horizon, I have officially signed off on maternity leave.
I think it’s important that I write this post. It often feels as though we, the supply teachers, are the hidden members of the education system. Even the unions, to a certain extent, don’t see us. I generally scan through any literature sent to me by my union, and put it in the bin, because the bulk of it applies not to me, but to teachers working in long term or permanent positions. Supply teachers have only recently received holiday pay and many earn below what they should on the pay scale for day to day assignments, or are repeatedly encouraged to sign up to umbrella pay companies without really wanting or needing to. There is something about pension roll-out in the offing, I understand (and this can only be good news, right?) but we still don’t receive statutory sick pay, even on long term assignments. The temporary nature of our appointment means we can be replaced at a moment’s notice. And that’s on top of ignoring our training and development needs, charging us for training other colleagues can access for free, seeing us having to pay for our own DBS certificate, without which we cannot work at all (and which is free for volunteers, even), and more critically, through their lack of action, endorsing the attitude other teachers reserve for us.
When I first received my union membership pack, it came replete with a page long case study of each and every member they support. Newly qualified teacher, primary teacher, secondary teacher, SEN teacher, student teacher, nursery nurse, early years’ educator... There was no such page for supply teacher, and I felt strongly enough about this to telephone and ask them why. Their reply, which amounted to saying that they felt as though this would stigmatise supply teachers, didn’t ring true to me. For my money, I would have felt as though my union recognised that my needs differed slightly to my permanent colleagues, and were seeking to address this. It would also have made me feel valued as a professional in my own right. Perhaps others feel differently. Perhaps they did research amongst their members and this was the result, but I am far more tempted to believe that they didn’t really think about it too deeply. It’s easy to overlook supply teachers, like I said.
Perhaps in part, this attitude stems from the fact a lot of supply teachers these days work for agencies, in effect, the private sector. And yet, for many of us, this isn’t exactly through choice. The majority of local authorities have closed their supply pool, and for work within a particular authority, it is recommended that you sign up with a certain agency. Schools often make the same suggestion too, in my experience. It’s a form of security. Agencies have the systems in place to vet and check their teachers effectively, and a good agency will seek out a teacher with appropriate experience for any given assignment. This has become more vital for schools in this results and target driven environment, not to mention the increased importance now placed upon safeguarding children, and with which I completely agree. As far as I am concerned, the agency works on my behalf too. It is much more difficult to stand up to any accusation from a school as a self-employed supply teacher, because I have no clear union representative to support me. At least having the backing and support of an agency behind me, who are aware of my employment history, and value my reputation, any concerns I have about a particular assignment can be dealt with swiftly and tactfully. There’s a lot to be said for this when having a good reputation has a direct effect on how much work I get!
So…we should be getting information and advice from our unions...but we are not. Agencies, fair and well run as they may be, have no legal obligation to provide their teachers with information regarding rights such as maternity benefit for temporary teachers, for example. And yet, that information should be freely available to me. Simply a downloadable PDF leaflet from my union website, in a section for supply teachers, would suffice. But no. Do you know where I found out I was probably eligible for maternity allowance? Not even the Job Centre. No. My midwife. And actually, I think that’s quite shocking. I was pretty much under the impression that I wouldn’t receive any maternity pay as I wasn’t working full time and hadn’t been permanently employed. Maybe I’m naïve and other people would be asking the question of their union, but the fact is that I didn’t. And that in itself means that my union failed me.
Neither my husband nor I have ever really applied for benefit, as we have always worked and earned enough to keep the wolf from the door as far as the benefits agency are concerned. So it was with some degree of trepidation that we began filling in the online form. First we had to check I was eligible, and fortunately, thanks to two long term assignments within the given “test period” (effectively consecutive weeks of employment within a specific time frame related to when the baby was due), I qualified! Hurrah!
The form was next. The paper version I collected from the JobCentrePlus was out of date, and so eventually we downloaded and worked our way through the PDF version. One question in particular made me laugh out loud. “What days did you last regularly work?” with boxes to tick next to the days of the week. Of course, I am a supply teacher. I don’t DO regular days.
After a certain point I had to go back to my main agency and ask them for an SMP1 form, something, again, I didn’t realise, because even though they aren’t paying my maternity benefit, they have to say why they aren’t paying me. What a faff. Finally it was finished and sent off. About a week later I received a letter saying that while I was eligible, I needed to sign something else and send it off, which I did. Then we waited again, and I received confirmation of what I would be paid…and when. I’m still waiting to BE paid, though….proof of the pudding is in the eating and all that!
And this is really where the unions, for me, miss a trick. By refusing to engage with agencies, they leave a large sector of the teaching workforce disengaged and voiceless. There is no impetus to change the system or make it better for us. And this is where National Supply Teacher Week steps in. It provides us with a voice. And I’m so grateful.