If head teachers and education departments were asked to describe in one word the present supply teaching system, it would almost certainly be 'inefficient'.
The situation as it is now, where more than 100 agencies of varying track record compete for schools' business, is wasteful both of scarce time and resources.
On the ground, the result for schools and education departments is a larger hole in their budgets than necessary, and concern that it is difficult to get high-calibre supply teachers to support the drive to raise standards of teaching and learning.
Yet this situation is nothing new. When I was at the Teacher Training Agency two years ago, I was aware that some council education staff were concerned that a hit-and-miss supply teaching system risked failing almost everyone involved - heads, teachers, education departments, and crucially, children.
The Department for Education & Skills has produced a Quality Mark scheme for agencies and education departments providing supply teachers. But the mark alone will not change the face of the market.
So what is the solution? In these days of increasing public and private sector co-operation, it is about time education departments and schools joined forces with the business world to shake things up.
As a first step towards this, we have been speaking to education departments and other interested bodies across London about the type of system they would like
to see introduced to cut waste and costs and improve the quality of supply teaching.
Their dream, they have been telling us, is to replace the present panoply of agencies with one reliable source of supply teachers - so they feel certain they are getting th e best possible teachers at the best possible price in the shortest possible time.
They want to be free from worries that too many teachers are operating outside their specialist subject areas, and that too many underperforming teachers escape detection by skipping from agency to agency - and they want to improve continuity between temporary teachers and their pupils.
To test whether this is simply a dream, or a realistic ambition, we have been working closely with Ealing LBC. The result of this joint approach has been a partnership initiative called LEA Gateway. Launched in September by the DfES, the programme streamlines the inefficient supply teacher process - by placing both state-of-the art technology and, just as crucially, support staff at the disposal of heads and education departments.
Under the system, schools are freed from having to source supply staff from a range of agencies or the education department's own supply list. Instead they are allocated a dedicated support team, which talks through their needs on a continuous basis, and are given access to a sophisticated database of supply teachers which matches their needs with the available pool of teachers.
It tells them everything from qualifications and past experience to location and travelling distance.
Our assessment is that schools can save around£30 a day per supply teacher compared with the inflated costs charged by some agencies at the moment. Multiplied by the volume of supply teachers employed by a typical council, we estimated this could save each education department in the region of£1m a year.
In terms of improving teaching quality, the system also ensures some monies are ring-fenced for the professional development of supply teachers. All teachers have to go through a recognised vetting procedure, while a steering group representing heads and the education department is established to monitor and evaluate performance.
LEA Gateway is, of course, only in its infancy, and there remains no room for complacen cy, but I am convinced this partnership approach provides the key to unlocking the supply teacher crisis that has been allowed to fester for far too long - and offers a model of best practice for education departments across the country.
Chair, Teaching Personnel