By Bob Sulatycki, Socialist Alternative North London and National Education Union member (personal capacity)
The Tories efforts to force the early reopening of schools in England has made the unionisation and organisation of supply teachers a major priority for NEU activists.
Since the start of lockdown, the vulnerable position of supply teachers has become even more apparent. Depending on the often unexplained decisions of the different agencies, a significant number of supply staff have not been furloughed, or have had to fight to obtain furlough payments. The NEU has reported that there have been record calls on the hardship fund specifically from supply staff during this crisis.
The variable approaches from the private agencies is also evident as the Government tries to enforce the ending of lockdown. Some agencies are now approaching teachers on their books to demand their availability without any clear undertaking that the schools to which such staff are to be deployed comply with basic health and safety requirements demanded by the unions.
A big question now posed is, given that agencies will now have to contribute to the Job Retention Scheme, will staff continue to be furloughed?
Moreover, supply staff are potentially in an extremely unsafe situation when working in multiple settings. Additionally, they run the risk of becoming Covid-19 carriers, taking the virus from one institution to another – a danger that exists even in individual schools, when moving from one setting to another.
The financial and contractual precarity of many supply staff leaves them particularly susceptible to such unsafe working practices. Agencies have a duty of care to the staff they employ, but supply teachers have reported that some agencies have been reluctant to have thorough discussions with their employees about schools’ health and safety arrangements, risk assessments, means of ensuring social distancing etc.
Supply staff have become increasingly organised, and it is welcome that the NEU has made more serious attempts to recruit and involve these colleagues over the recent crisis. Initiatives such as the NEU Supply Teachers’ Network play an ever more important role in informing staff and developing a collective approach.
Amongst the demands now being raised is the idea of creating a register of supply agencies that meet basic criterion. Although there is some merit in this proposal, a more satisfactory long-term solution would be to bring back supply staff back ‘in house’ under the employment of local authorities and out of the hands of for profit private agencies.