Headteachers call for NHS-style pay cap to rein in supply agencies

Schools are being forced to pay hefty fees for new teachers as agencies pounce to sign up trainees

Competition between supply agencies is now so fierce that trainee teachers are being signed up to join as they begin three-year BEd degrees, TES can reveal – even though shortages mean that they would otherwise have little difficulty getting a job.

Headteachers are warning that the practice, which involves schools paying an introduction fee when they take on new teachers, will make the trainees less attractive to potential schools – but in the current climate, some schools feel they have no choice but to pay.

The NAHT headteachers’ union is now so concerned at the spend – for both supply and permanent positions – that it has called for a cap, similar to that imposed on agency spending in the National Health Service.

Money diverted from education

Valentine Mulholland, policy adviser for the NAHT, said: :”In the NHS, the government has decided limits to what agencies can charge for locums. Our members have said we should explore something similar in education. The money should be going into education and it is having to go to the supply agencies.”

Ms Mulholland added that signing up trainees during their PGCE year had recently become a common practice.

“It is extremely widespread,” she said. “And we’re very unhappy about it. We had not heard about it at all until the last two or three years, but members really started raising it as an issue last autumn.

“They are signed up during their first term, when a bit green. I have heard of people being signed up before they start a teaching degree.”

The NAHT raised concerns about recruitment practices earlier this year, after its survey found that schools were spending up to £10,000 and an average of £3,000 per recruit. Other concerns included:

  • Large introductory or transfer fees, which are paid when a teacher who has been introduced, or who has been working as a supply teacher, is given a permanent job.
  • Agencies “gazumping” schools, leaving them without a teacher at the last minute when they believed they had recruited.
  • Agencies failing to make terms of contracts transparent – or trying to charge fees that were not set out in the contract.

A new code of practice is being drawn up between unions and the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) to address concerns about transparency of fees, which is due to be ready later this term.

‘Clear and transparent’

Ms Mulholland said: “We want to make it clear and more transparent, so that headteachers can understand what to expect. We’re also saying the government should issue advice to schools working with supply agencies and look at these issues.”

Samantha Hurley, operations director of APSCo, which represents 650 companies, including 50 in education, said that the draft version would add to its current standard code of practice with additions potentially including clearly set-out fees, liabilities and the obligations of all parties involved.

“What we’re trying to do is raise the professionalism and profile of the recruitment sector,” she said. “If we can work with the unions to come up with a code that they feel more confident with, that is a good thing for us.

“I think it is easy for schools to say ‘They are charging us lots of money, it’s really expensive’, but from our members’ point of view they are providing a service that their schools really want and need.”

She added that when it came to enlisting trainee teachers before they had even started job-hunting, it was up to the individual students whether they wanted to sign up with an agency or not.

Agencies ‘distorting’ market

The NUT teaching union said that it had been consulted on the code of practice and that it would draw members’ attention to it – although it was not endorsed by the union.

Kevin Courtney, NUT acting general secretary, said: “These complicated introductory fees are another example of how public money is being drained away by agencies and shows how they are distorting teacher recruitment.”

Malcolm Trobe, Association of School and College Leaders interim general secretary, said: “If you have a supply teacher and you want to employ them, there is an introductory fee. That has been around a long time, but we have concerns about it because some of those fees are so high.

“In the middle of a recruitment crisis, no trainees should be signing up to agencies – they should be looking to apply to schools.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We trust heads and governors, who best understand the needs of their schools, to decide how best to recruit and deploy staff.”

How the NHS caps agency fees

The cap on agency spending in the NHS was introduced in stages from November 2015 to April 2016. It places mandatory caps on how much trusts can pay per shift.

The aim is that an agency worker should not be rewarded more than existing permanent staff at that grade. There is also an overall expenditure cap that a trust can spend on agency staff.

The National Audit Office reported on the change in February 2016 and found that while it might attract some staff back to permanent posts, it would not address the underlying causes of demand for temporary staff.

The body pointed out that agency work was attractive to some staff because of the flexibility it offered, as well as the financial reward.

Figures published in Nursing Times in March showed that 85 per cent of NHS trusts that had answered a Freedom of Information request had exceeded the nursing cap, overriding the rates more than 60,000 times. The King’s Fund thinktank said that while the aim had been to reduce pay rates, the risk was that hospitals would not be able to procure the staff they needed.

TES Global, the parent company of TES, owns three teacher supply agencies

This is an article from the 8 July edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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