Supply Teaching: Zero-Hour Contracts by @TeacherToolkit

Reading time: 5
shutterstock business man balance demand and supply on finger tip


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

This is a blog about our unsung heroes; supply teachers.

I once was a supply teacher. It happened by accident and was not something I had planned to, yet during the one-year I worked in 10 different schools, I learnt a huge amount about teaching. Prior to this, I had travelled to Nigeria in 1997, to live and work for the VSO in my NQT year in Kano. The placement at St. Thomas’ School didn’t work out. I missed the job-market and rental-bandwagon back home, returned with my tail between my legs and found myself sleeping on floors in North and South London, in-between schools on a supply basis. It was a brutal start to my teaching career. There were highs and lows and something I look back on with intrepidation.

If ever there was a need to highlight a recruitment crisis, and something more deep-rooted about the problems with teaching personnel, this blog may be it. There are more than likely, 1,000s of supply teachers in our system, choosing not to work full-time in schools for whatever reason. They too, deserve some recognition in the current climate. This blog is just one teacher’s story.

Read on …

shutterstock Woman working with a laptop sitting at the desk

Image: Shutterstock

A Letter from a Supply Teacher:

Yesterday, I received this email from a primary supply teacher. The email said;

“I am a supply teacher and feel that this role is often overlooked in discussions about education. I am employed by private, not public sector agencies which is extremely common with supply teaching.  I work on a zero-hour contract (with more than one agency). I haven’t had a pay rise in over 5 years, I have to pay for any CPD opportunities, as well as losing pay for the days that I attend. I have to pay for my own DBS checks.  I constantly receive notification that I have been assessed, but found not to be eligible to be included in the pension scheme.  My work is extremely insecure, and I have no safety net if anything goes wrong.

I would like to ensure that:
– supply teaching is acknowledged within education
– the role of a supply teacher is understood
– the working conditions of supply teachers are understood

On behalf of myself and other supply teachers, I would like to get recognition for this role and greater equality in training, pay and pension rights.”

This teacher emailed Nicky Morgan MP and received a respone (not shown here). Following this, I offered the anonymous supply teacher an opportunity to express their views on my blog. This is what they said;

The Long Summer:

It’s half term. Only a few weeks now until schools break up for the long summer holidays. Some teachers will get a much longer holiday than everyone else. And for them this is a worry.

As a supply teacher, my work will soon dry up. For the last few days of term, there will be no courses running. If a teacher is ill, there is no need to replace the teacher. They can all go to the hall to watch a video or play board games while the display boards are taken down, and work is organised to take home.

September will be also be a quiet month for supply teachers too. It may pick up towards the October half term. All in all, that is around-about 12 weeks without pay! There will be also be a whole new cohort of supply teachers, NQTs who haven’t secured a post for September; teachers who have decided to leave the classroom, and recently retired teachers. They will in all likelihood, get the lion’s share of any available work.

shutterstock girl woman bus stop waiting umbrella road waiting

Image: Shutterstock

Getting Paid:

I am registered with two private agencies which give me more work opportunities. It also means that I can work with schools over two bordering local authorities. It does however, resemble waiting at a bus stop. You wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once. This happens frequently when a course is running, because obviously, courses are organised for a whole group of teachers. This means that on a particular day, teachers from several schools are out of the classroom and need to be replaced by supply teachers. I am inundated with offers of work for that day, and then it gets tricky what decision to make …

Many courses are for half days. I get a call from my agency offering me a half day advance booking. I have several options:

  • I say yes. It is work, and I can’t afford to turn work down. I do the work, get paid.
  • I say yes. My other agency rings and offers me a full day’s work instead (or it might be two or more days).
  • I say no, I’ll wait for something better. Nothing better comes along and I have a day without pay.
  • I say yes, turn down other work, then get a call the night before, or on the morning. The course has been cancelled, or the school has double booked so they don’t need anyone now. I am now left without pay.

What would you do?

shutterstock Business women empty wallet in his hands. On a white background.

Image: Shutterstock

(Supply) Teachers’ Pay and Conditions:

A few weeks ago I was pleased when a school had asked for me to teach for a full week. The teacher got in touch with me to discuss the planning. It then became a little awkward. My agency had booked me in for a full week. But a full week for a teacher involves PPA time, which is covered by someone else. And for an NQT, there is additional time out of the classroom. In this instance, the school kindly rearranged the time and I taught for the full five days. The following week however, I was asked to continue the assignment, but this time it was only for four days.

The school year is 195 days. Pay is between £100 and £120 per day, so if you ‘do the maths’; the highest achievable pay for a year would be £23,400. For a supply teacher, it is fair to say that this figure reduces significantly. Last year, my total earnings were £13,118.39 before tax. This includes holiday pay. Holiday pay is calculated based on 5.6 weeks holiday per year. I didn’t take any time off because of illness (I wouldn’t have got paid). I get regular e-mails saying that I have been assessed but don’t match the criteria for inclusion in the pension scheme.

Ironically, one of the reasons I am asked to cover any staff absence, is that they are on a course or developing their CPD. They get paid time-off to do this. I however, have to pay for any courses I attend (rarely local to where I live), as well as taking unpaid time off. Even twilight courses are timed so that they can’t coincide with work.

I took this from the application form of the local authority supply pool application form:

“We will ask (your referees) about class control, behaviour management, ability to establish a rapport with children and to work with other school staff. We will seek your referees’ views on your curriculum knowledge, honesty and reliability, commitment to helping children achieve and ability to keep accurate and up-to-date records. Referees are sent a tick-box form for these elements with possible assessments of “poor”; “average”; “good”; “excellent” and “don’t know/not applicable”.

At present, owing to the number of teachers applying we will only take on supply teachers where both referees assess all of these abilities as “good” or “excellent.”

I will leave you now at the school gates.

What happens when I arrive at school is a subject for another day. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. But the financial insecurity is something that is always at the back of my mind.


What do you think? How can we ensure our supply teachers are recognised as an imperative backup to teachers in the classroom? How can we protect this workforce as well as show they are valued? Leave your comments below.

If you are keen to support supply teachers, it’s the 3rd National Supply Teacher Week: 15th – 19th June 2015.

  • To highlight the importance of supply teachers in a child’s education
  • To increase respect for supply teachers
  • To show appreciation for those working as supply teachers
  • To help combat the recurring feeling amongst supply teachers of isolation
  • To support supply teachers with their professional development
  • To provide information for those considering supply teaching as a career move
  • To increase awareness of the skills needed to be a supply teacher
  • To help schools work with supply teachers more effectively.

The aims are here.


10 thoughts on “Supply Teaching: Zero-Hour Contracts by @TeacherToolkit

  1. Hi Ross, you’ll know this… Is there no way for teachers to choose their own supply teachers? or does this already happen? As a student our supply teachers were just ‘randomers’ we had some fun with, sometimes cruelly so, admittedly. But that would be different if our teacher knew the supply teacher and recommended that specific supply teacher for us, as opposed to the pot-luck draw it seems to be right now? From a supply teachers perspective this might bring some stability if they are directly ‘on call’ for say 5, 20, 100 or however many teachers they’re helping in their area? Each teacher can maybe just have a favourite supply teacher and a couple of backups who they call directly to cover classes they’ll miss, then paperwork can be sorted after. Simpler and more ‘human’ than a teacher calling the school, who calls an agency, who calls a supply teacher, then calls the school, who tells the teacher, who contacts the supply teacher with cover info… or however it’s done right now, I’m not sure how it’s done right now, this is a guess from the way it looks from a student perspective. I’m hoping you can help me understand?

    1. Appointing supply teachers vary school to school. Essentially, there is one school person who makes the decision to buy-in a supply teacher. This can be daily or long term and regular faces are always welcome. Some agencies are ruthless with fees and make up all sorts of stories with the teacher, especially those new to the country. You’ll be pleased to know that I make these staffing decisions in my school and I am slowly picking away at the rogue agencies. Blog post due one day.

  2. Hi Ross

    Working as a supply teacher and meeting supply staff helps one to really understand the dilemma that these professionals face. A feeling of isolation and not belonging, not really being a part of any team and schools leaders totally oblivious to the wealth of experiences you may bring into their school are just a few of the observations I have made,

    For this reason I have now moved onto recruiting supply staff to schools in London. I hope to use my Deputy Headship experiences to partner up with schools and help supply staff to have a career pathway and an income that reflects their hardwork. It is worrying that supply staff have no income protection and no pension scheme, and yes I have discovered the many many ruthless agencies that benefit hugely from teachers, TA ‘s and the school budgets.

    I would value any support that I can get from my colleagues in Local Authorities and schools who are responsible for recruitment and day to day cover, to work with my team to develop a better approach to day to day and long term cover. Please visit our website

  3. Hi Ross,

    Having worked in a school and had many conversations with supply teachers, I am well aware of their struggles (many of which are touched upon in your post).

    This was one of the key reasons for starting Our approach allows our teachers to earn a fixed £150 every day they work whilst giving full control to our teachers. There are no catches and we have significantly improved and simplified the entire process which is why schools are joining us.

    We are launching in a couple of weeks so it’s a great time for supply teachers to join us and get a head start.

    For more information please visit:


  4. Hi,
    I started supply in Feb, since then I have had 30 days work! (Admittedly I have been on sick since October half term having a hip replacement). I was told by colleagues there would be plenty of work but this obviously is not the case, I think because schools look to cheaper options. My first assignments were poor, one particularly at a “Good” school where work wasn’t set, introduction none existent, senior staff and pupils extremely rude. Since then I have established a relationship with a local school. Although it is officially under special measures I have enjoyed my time there and have, to a certain extent, been welcomed and valued. There used to be a scheme where authorities had a pool of permanently employed staff who were then deployed. This was much better as it had a proper professional basis with CPD. The break up of the system into academies, who seem to know the price of everything and value of nothing, has led to this atrocious zero hours situation. By the way I have been able to claim SSP from my agency, not much but better than nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.