Comment Blog 2 March, 2017

The future is already here, so what should we do about it?

Teachers and schools are already using apps to reduce agency fees.

I recently wrote an article interpreting what some of the findings from our report on the public sector workforce might mean for education specifically. The headline chosen for me was ‘Uber system will make supply teachers cheaper’ and attracted two types of responses: outrage at such a suggestion, and delight from start-ups already offering ‘revolutionary win-win solutions’. As ever, the reality is more complex and needs open discussion. But make no mistake, that reality is here already.

Cutting out the middle man

First things first, given the c.£900m of public money currently spent on teacher recruitment agencies, with reported commissions of 15 to 40 per cent (the former being the average according to The Recruitment & Employment Confederation), it is probably worth exploring any solution that might bring that down.

The aim here is not to have a completely temporary teaching workforce, that would obviously risk both teaching and job quality, never mind the relationships that underpin both. After all, Uber is only useful as an example for education or other public sectors because people have heard of it; being a teacher, exam assessor or invigilator is a more sophisticated and regulated role. But a proportion of ‘flexible resource’ is normal in any staff team, whether to cover illnesses and vacancies, or to respond to seasonal peaks such as exams. For public sector workforces to keep delivering improved outcomes and value for citizens, as well as decent work for staff, they must constantly evolve in line with the latest practices. Technology should help with this.

An initial scan of teacher recruitment apps shows about ten organisations already offering such services in England. They are mostly early stage start-ups by former teachers, focused on the ‘pain points’ currently experienced by both schools and supply teachers – whether that’s a daily haggle with agencies over availability, opportunities and pay; or accurate staff ETAs. Most importantly, new digital business models are more efficient – meaning schools should pay less (from £6 per candidate per day) and teachers get more. Some services cut out agencies completely, whereas others help both sides make quicker choices between agencies. Many don’t charge ‘finders fees’ should temporary staff go permanent.

A modern school workforce

In the current context of school budget cuts it’s the staff wage bill that’s by far the biggest cost. Done right, work allocation apps – which use the latest technology to help get the right people, in the right place at the right time – could also help attract more teachers in to the system and retain those already working there. Both new entrants and returners might be persuaded into the classroom by more flexible working, as illustrated by the unsuccessful Return to Teaching pilot. This might be particularly appealing to those with portfolio careers or returning to work after a career break, but would require management practices to adapt.

Likewise retention could be improved by having a shared pool of efficiently allocated staff across several schools – whether that’s a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), federation, local authority or other group. Many schools are already using systems such as Doodle and Calendly to schedule staff time, but such apps are just the tip of the iceberg, with smarter time-saving tools coming all the time. Helping staff to openly schedule and coordinate their time in this way, including daily Continuing Professional Development activities, should help to address workload issues.

What should we do?

It’s too early to tell if such platforms will ‘revolutionise’ the recruitment agency business, or whether the large established agencies will start to offer such apps and lower their fees. The realities of employment law and face-to-face checks are some of the challenges for new entrants to address. But why would a large and profitable agency innovate unless it has to? Less regulated types of agency work such as factories and agriculture (both features of my own teenage summers in our Capital of Culture) would be far easier options for them. Perhaps we will also start to see enterprising offers from other existing players in education such as councils, unions, MATs or co-operatives?

So this all begs the question, what if anything is the role of government in this emerging market? Doing nothing would risk a race to the bottom and market failure (which in this case means worse outcomes for children), yet the level of intervention proposed by the Shadow Chancellor seems rather unrealistic. To achieve economies of scale both a national ‘online hub’ and a procurement framework are being mooted by the Department for Education, although both appear to be delayed. As we see a rise in the number of school staff that are self-employed independent contractors, does that require changes to regulation? How can we ensure such workers are appropriately equipped? Will they have and want all the same rights and benefits such as sick pay, pensions, the option of a union, or insurance? These are all key questions we’ll be exploring as we research the school workforce, both now and in 2030. We’d love to hear your views.