Agencies help address teacher shortages but risk exposing schools to market forces


The problem of teacher shortages is rarely out of the news. Only this week the Education Select Committee concluded that the government is failing to take adequate measures to tackle "significant teacher shortages" in England. Gaps in the classroom are being filled by supply teachers, some hired by agencies. Yet, while agency staff usage and spending in the NHS frequently attract headlines in the national media, much less attention is paid to the spiralling costs of agency supply teachers in England’s state schools.

At NIESR, commissioned by the Office for Manpower Economics, we set out to understand this under-researched area. Our report reveals that teacher disillusionment and shortages drive agency usage, in a highly decentralised market, without any framework or quality assurance, which exposes schools to unprincipled practices around fees and quality.

We found some similarities between use of agencies in schools and in the NHS:

First, the increasing use of agency supply teachers reflects shortages of staff resulting from disillusionment with working conditions in schools. More worrying for schools, however, is that newly qualified teachers, as well as experienced teachers are among those dissatisfied with working in a permanent, full-time role. Agency working offers a way out of permanent employment while staying in the profession. Agency supply teaching does not offer the same advantageous day rates as agency shifts in the NHS. In fact, agency supply teachers say they have sacrificed a substantial chunk of their earnings and pensions. But this is a price worth paying to escape heavy workloads, long working hours, paperwork, bureaucracy and the office politics associated with permanent employment. Teachers told us that agency work had allowed them to get back their work-life balance.   

Second, as with health staff in the NHS, there is a national shortage of teachers. Until the Government implements effective policies around workforce planning and training places, schools will continue to have to plug recruitment gaps. Schools have a range of options at their disposal, including using cover supervisors, teachers with some spare capacity, senior leaders, and bringing in former staff. Some also re-jig timetables and merge classes, practices which go down badly with parents. Schools turn to agencies as a last resort. But they also use them sometimes to test out potential permanent recruits on a ‘try before you buy’ basis. This practice involves paying high transfer fees to agencies but, given the expense of traditional recruitment and job advertising, was a price sometimes worth paying.

Agency working in schools is unregulated

In other respects, the use of agency staff in schools is very different to within the NHS where a complex regulatory system is in place aimed at ensuring cost effectiveness and quality control. This system involves approved framework agreements, master vendor arrangements and price caps, which have to some degree reduced the costs for trusts.

In contrast, the education agency market is highly decentralised, operating without any frameworks or quality assurance mechanism after the Government scrapped the so-called Quality Mark in 2013, a scheme that gave agencies that complied with rigorous vetting procedures a DfE-mandated quality assurance stamp. It has only been replaced by a voluntary accreditation scheme administered by the professional body for recruitment businesses, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). But despite the best of intentions, it is not used widely by schools. This means that schools can simply sign up with who they like. At the same time, the use of local authority banks has declined sharply in recent years, reflecting academisation and withdrawal of local pooled services for schools.

This has resulted in a significant reduction to barriers of entry, and the number of education agencies has subsequently doubled, many of whom are very small. Not surprisingly, schools expressed much less confidence in the quality of agencies and the workers on their books than in the healthcare sector. And the experiences of schools regarding usage, costs and quality of services are highly variable. School managers work without much guidance, relying solely on their own historic relations with agencies, as well as personal recommendations and through ‘trial and error.’ This undoubtedly exposes schools to unprincipled practices, including exorbitant agency fees and poor quality teachers. Schools which experience the most difficulties recruiting teachers, among them those in disadvantaged communities and with poor Ofsted ratings, are especially vulnerable. Some have little choice than to use agencies.

What can be done to address shortages and reduce dependence on temporary staff?

First, the Government needs to address the chronic problem of teacher shortages through improved workforce planning and training provision. But the challenge is also to retain staff as well as recruit them, and this has to involve improving working conditions for both newly qualified and experienced teachers. This can ultimately only be achieved at school level, but ensuring that schools can recruit the teachers they need would certainly help. Finally, the education sector needs to learn the lessons from the experiences in the NHS, who have long ago acknowledged the need of establishing Government-mandated arrangements such as framework agreements to centralise and structure the recruitment of agency workers. This could be delivered through a state-run national agency, regional supply banks, or through an entirely new system. Its development would, however, involve a change of direction from the fragmentation and localised reorganisation that the academisation programme has brought about. But the free market simply isn’t serving schools well. Regulation of agencies in the sector would provide the badly needed support for public sector schools who are currently navigating their way within an unstructured market where market forces prioritise cost over quality.



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