Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Report from the NUT Supply Teacher Conference - 27 June 2015

“We are all only a term away from being a supply teacher” Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, NUT speaking to NUT Supply Teachers’ Conference 2015

This was positive day in so many ways.  First of all, it was full weeks ago, and there was a great turn out on the day with around 150 supply teachers giving up a Saturday to attend this important event which is now in its third year.

I was personally delighted to see that a number of the Executive had also given up their time to attend.  I’m not sure how many were there last year, but I’m pretty sure the numbers had at least doubled this year. That’s great because it shows supply teacher issues are starting to be taken seriously.

The date for the lobby of supply agencies was agreed as 28 October. This has been the subject of much debate, owing to the lack of movement in promoting it before the onset of the summer holidays and there was a suggestion that it should be moved back to February. However the clear view of the conference was that we should stick to October. It is now up to the Executive to work with the staff at Hamilton House, and associations and divisions around the country, to ensure that this important lobby, which will highlight the poor pay and insecure working conditions of supply teachers, is given the full weight of union backing. This is an event for all teachers, not just supply teachers. It’s time we all showed solidarity with our supply teacher colleagues.

A highlight of the conference was hearing from Tony Carlin, of INTO, the Northern Irish teaching union, who came to speak to conference about the supply teacher register run in Northern Ireland. It is mandatory to be on the register, and all supply teachers are paid to scale AND have access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. The software used to run the register is so effective that only two people are needed to organise supply teachers for the whole of the region. This keeps running costs low which means that the savings can be passed back to schools instead of lining the pockets of the supply agency bosses. It’s a win-win, and is a model that we need to be using this side of the Irish Sea too.

However, while there were many positives to take away from the day, there were also concerns with the way the conference had been organised and these need to be addressed.

It was strongly felt by the NUT Supply Teacher Network (NUTSTN) that a supply teacher should chair the conference. I don’t think the first session, where out of six people on the panel only one was a supply teacher, lessened that feeling. While the Supply Teacher Network was grateful for Alex Kenny of the Executive stepping in to chair the conference, I don’t think anyone felt that “Kevin asked me if I’d do it” was a democratic way of picking a chair.

There were also serious concerns that Kate Shoesmith of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), the body who represent supply agencies, was given 20 minutes of conference time to give an unimpeded sales pitch for their services, and to defend the absolutely shoddy way supply teachers are treated. The NUTSTN had asked that the REC representative appeared as part of an Education Question Time-style event to close the conference. The only forum Kate Shoesmith should have been allowed to appear in is one where her assertions could be properly interrogated and examined.

While Tony Carlin speaking about the Northern Ireland Supply Teacher Register was a highlight, ETeach, the company that provide the software for the register, were not at the conference, despite the NUTSTN asking for them to be invited. This is another example of how an opportunity to move things forward was missed and how the organising voice of supply teachers is being ignored.

I personally felt that a conference which should have been used to motivate and empower supply teachers to organise and take action was, yet again, reduced to a very controlled talking shop. The presentation which started the conference was highly technical and appeared to be setting a context in which the NUT couldn’t be blamed for not taking action to support supply teachers because, hey look, the way they’re employed is so darned complicated. Supply teachers already know that they exist in the dark netherworld of education privatisation where employment legislation doesn’t seem to reach. This seemed to be a fairly demotivating way to start a conference and it was really odd that, although absolutely massive amounts of information was given about the way supply teachers are contracted, none of the information was available as a hand out.

For the past year we have been told that the reason that the Supply Teacher Conference can’t elect its own chair and be organised and planned by supply teachers is because we don’t have an Advisory Committee within the union structure. When we asked if we could have one we were told that we couldn’t because they weren’t effective and a review of the whole structure was taking place. However, at the conference, Kevin Courtney announced that, by next year, there would be a Supply Teacher Advisory Committee. We knew nothing about this and I have mixed feelings. If it means that supply teachers have an input into the policy making and policy implementation of their union, and are better able to organise, that’s great. But if these committees are ineffective as we’ve been told repeatedly, how does that take us forward?

So how can things be improved?

Well first and foremost, if the union is serious about improving the working lives of supply teachers then it needs to work much harder to empower them. If the structures in place are unable to support that, then they need to change, and quickly.

No one in the NUTSTN is afraid of democracy. We welcome any developments that enable as many supply teachers as possible to get their voices heard.

Next year the Supply Teachers’ Conference needs to have a) seen real commitment from the Executive to improving their pay and conditions b) be run bottom up, not top down to ensure that it’s the genuinely proactive, empowering and developmental event it should be.
I will personally be doing all I can to ensure this happens.                                                             
Bridget Chapman