Issues in Educational Research, 4(2), 1994, 81-93.

Evaluation of the relief teaching programme in government primary schools in Western Australia

Ann Crittenden
Edith Cowan University

Unlike all other teacher classifications within the Education Department of Western Australia, the procurement of employment for the relief teacher (RT) is left entirely up to the individual. Whether or not the relief teacher succeeds in securing relief work is largely dependent upon personal motivation and a whole range of chance variables, as much as upon personal qualities and professional skills. Whether or not the individual school succeeds in securing a reliable supply of good relief teachers (RTs) is also largely dependent upon a range of chance variables, word of mouth and who, in fact, turns up to offer their services in that capacity. The fact that relief teaching in WA works as well as it does is in itself remarkable.

The current system in Western Australia's schools is approximately ten years old. Prior to ten years ago, the schools would ring the Education Department whenever a RT was required and they would then fill the vacancy from its pool of registered RTs. In the current system, all RTs still have to be fully qualified teachers and registered with the Education Department with an ID number, but are left to contact the individual schools in their district themselves to register for work as a potential RT. It is quite common for a teacher to register with as many as 40 to 50 schools at the beginning of the school year, despite the inevitability of obtaining work from only a handful of these. It is also possible for a school to be unable to secure a relief teacher on a given day, despite having a substantial pool of RTs.

Statistics from the Education Department of Western Australia for the first term, 1993, indicate that there are:

These figures are not easily obtained and are not published. The number of RTs is significant. They are equally divided between primary and secondary, which means that there are about 550 primary school RTs working per fortnight. The Education Department was unable to indicate the actual number of days worked in that time, which would vary between teachers. Some of those RTs would be drawn from the pool of part time primary teachers, and others would be teachers on leave of absence, and the rest new graduates not yet appointed.

The significance of the proportion between teachers and RTs indicates that the combined primary and secondary RTs represent approximately 13.7% of the total teaching population and, if the number of primary RTs is approximately 550, this represents 15.7% of the primary teaching population in WA. This compares with Gill and Hand's findings:

The role of the RT within our [Victorian] education system has become increasingly important since the time of their inception. To the present time this pool of teachers represents approximately 15% of the total teaching population (Gill & Hand, 1992, p.48).

The evaluation of the current situation in Western Australia focuses on obtaining an over all point of view of major groups: principals, teachers and RTs. The important input of the students themselves has not been covered. A qualitative research process has been used.

The purpose of the evaluation was to answer the research question, "Which aspects of the relief teaching programme can be improved?" In addition, this evaluation seeks to formulate proposals to address those stated needs/issues.

Literature review

The initial search and review of relevant literature established right from the start that there is scant published material on the subject of relief teaching. Very little research has been conducted in Australia on the subject, and even less information is available on the West Australian scene. Policy statements and other Education Department documentation regarding relief teaching is next to impossible to track down. These findings are supported by Gill and Hand (1992) and Galloway (1993):

A review of current literature revealed that there was no information available in Australia which presented a clear profile of RTs. There appeared to be no studies done to examine the expectations of RTs as held by school principals, peer teachers, parents and students. The literature indicates that some studies had been carried out in the USA. (Bontempo & Deay, 1986). However, these studies were focussed on local issues relevant to particular school districts and did not address the wider issues involved with this study (Gill & Hand, 1992, p.37).

It will be evident that published research on supply teaching is to date still sparse (Galloway, 1993, p. 154).

Galloway (1993, p.167) makes the additional comment that the non reference to relief teaching issues "should alert us to deep seated assumptions in the educational system and those who comment on it"

The literature reviewed covers a range of issues from administrative concerns (Galloway, 1993; Stanley, 1991; Simmons, 1991; Brace, 1990). to descriptions of the nature of the RT's work (Ferry, 1987; Hemmings, 1985; Clark, 1983; Lawrence, 1988), and one study examining pupils' views of Rts (Wood & Knight, 1988). Gill and Hand (1992) use a quantitative data collection method to provide a profile of RTs in Victoria, including their background work experience, age qualifications, degree of participation in recent professional development, and their perceived needs in that area.

The common theme running through these papers is that relief teaching is beset with difficulties. "In fact, there is hardly anything positive to read about substitute teaching" (Clifton & Rambaran, 1985, p.67). Hemmings' (1985) article is the only one offering a positive counterbalance: "with the right strategies the rewards are many." His viewpoint is atypical, however, of that generally expressed by RTs and summed up by Lawrence (1988, p.175): "supply teaching is, on the whole, a lousey job. What makes it worse is the way schools waste teacher resources by their nonchalant approach.

Wood and Knight (1988) report a 'mini-ethnographic' study undertaken in Queensland to examine pupils' perceptions and expectations of RTs, specifically addressing the question why some pupils respond as they do to RTs. They ascertain that the management skills of the RT, added to the students' information gleaned from initial encounters with the RT and the RT's 'reputation' represent the basis for co-operation or non-cooperation. The pupils in question, however, admitted that RTs don't have as much control over the class because they don't 'know' the class.

Galloway (1993) also reviews several UK studies which substantiate the importance of initial encounters and lack of specific information about pupils as key factors with which RTs must continually contend. Whereas, Clifton and Rambaran (1985) define the RT's lack of knowledge of the "classroom rituals" as directly related to the RT's lack of real authority and hence their inability to control a class. They classify RTs as working in a 'marginal situation' with a 'second class status'. This marginalised position is inevitable, argues Shilling (1991), due to the characteristics of the job, but belies the important function and role that RTs provide for schools. Hemmings (1985, p.11) disagrees with the notion that the RT "lacks both the freedom to initiate and the power to represent authority". As a seasoned RT he suggests that with a flexible and creative attitude, the RT who is innovative, without being too ambitious, can provide schools with the very tonic they need.

There is little doubt about the personal qualities and professional skills needed to relief teach successfully. These have been thoroughly covered in Shilling (1991), Hemmings (1985) and Clark (1983). Both Shilling (1991) and Hemmings (1985) agree that RTs need to be adaptable and flexible to put up with the lack of continuity, the irregular and unpredictable nature of the work. Shilling (1991) concludes that supply teachers need to be 'first rate' teachers to cope with the job. However as Hemmings (1985) and Clark (1983) both point out, a large component of the relief teaching population in Australia is made up of newly graduated teachers not yet appointed to full time positions. The question arises whether these new graduates have the necessary skills to cope with demands of relief teaching. Clark (1983) makes the important observation that due to the stressful nature of the work RTs are "forced to adopt only short term goals", "need not have any overall sense of direction" and may in fact have to adopt "a more aggressive stance than that normally taken". His final comment is a serious one: "Is the current system breeding and training, or at least encouraging, a generation of cynical, superficial survivors?" (Clark, 1983, p.45).


A survey research methodology was used in conjunction with ethnographic research: participation, observation and self reflection. A qualitative data collection was used, followed by quantitative and qualitative analysis.

The procedure followed the format:

In order to construct the questionnaire, an initial oral survey was conducted with principals and teachers to ascertain specific points of concern. The principals of four primary schools and five primary school teachers from different schools were interviewed. The information obtained in these interviews formed the basis of the three separate questionnaires: one for principals, one for teachers and one for relief teachers.

Administration of the questionnaires was carried out at six primary schools, five in the Perth Metropolitan region, and one country school:

The sample numbers turned out to be:


The analysis of the questionnaire data indicated that there are five key issues:

Induction of a new RT into a school

When a teacher arrives at a school to offer relief teaching services to that school, the principal, deputy or secretary/administrator takes the teacher's Ministry number, available working days, teaching area preferences and contact phone number. In many instances this is all that happens. The relief teacher may, or may not, ever get a phone call from that school to actually work. In assessing the suitability of a new RT, the principal's questionnaire asked the principal what information he valued as most useful.

A more significant issue is the nature and amount of information the school provides a new RT on the first day of teaching. All RTs agreed that it would be extremely helpful to be given some basic information about the school, such as a map of resource locations, bell times, duty procedures, etc. Only one principal, out of the six interviewed, responded that he regularly provides his RTs with such basic information. When asked if they regularly receive such information on their first teaching day at a school, the RTs responded that this rarely occurs.

Beginning RT work at a new school can initially be stressful and problematic, until the RT becomes familiar with all the variables at that school. RTs need assistance during this initial phase. Providing RTs with a manual of basic school information will help them to quickly pick up the school's normal routine. "Include a list of what will be expected of them and a list of what they should expect of the school". (Brace, 1990, p.74). A comprehensive list of suggested items to include can be found in Simmons (1991, p.95), Brace (1990,p.74), and Hemmings (1985, p.11).

Information compiled from the RTs questionnaire together with additional information cited in the references above, indicate that at the very least a RT manual should include the school's policy on:

This school document can be handed to each RT on arrival and should be returned to the office upon departure.


This evaluation focuses on the expectations held between teachers, principals and RTs in three areas:

1. Adhering to the teacher's set programme

Teachers were nearly evenly divided between those who expect RTs to stick to their planned programme (48%), and those who do not (52%). This data conflicts with the next set of data which found that 67% teachers are happy for RTs to set their own work in preference to following the teacher's programme. Further research is needed to clarify this discrepancy.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the relief teacher to arrive in the classroom to discover that no work has been set for the class, and there is no Programme left as a guide. RTs unprepared for such an emergency may experience panic in unparalleled proportions! 66% RTs responded that they come prepared with their own lessons in the event that no work has been left.

2. Marking student work

The marking of student work is often a bone of contention between teachers and RTs. 91 % teachers expect RTs to mark student work and complain bitterly if it is not done. Many RTs do not think marking is expected, many others are unsure. 80% RTs responded that they do mark work. There may be a big difference between what RTs feel they are expected to do and what in fact actually happens.

3. Management of student behaviour (MSB)

Principals, when asked what makes a good RT, cited "persons who can control their class with few discipline problems" as a major attribute. Teachers, when asked the same question, frequently listed "someone with good control techniques". RTs, when asked what things would make relief teaching easier, listed knowledge of the school's and individual teacher's student behaviour policy as a key item. Clearly the area of behaviour management is a crucial one for all three groups.

Wood and Knight (1988) maintain that student response to the RT is directly related to the RT's ability to control the class and the students' assessment of the ability.

Principals responded (50% strongly agree, 50% agree) that it is important to communicate their school's MSB policy to their RTs. Only one principal interviewed actually does this in a written document provided for the RT. About 33% of the RTs surveyed reported that principals only occasionally do this. The other 67% report that principals don't do this at all.

And while 80% of the teachers surveyed feel it's more important that the RT maintain the standard of pupil behaviour as opposed to following the teacher's programme, only 26% of RTs are told of difficult children and 20% are told of children with special needs. This finding is supported by Galloway (1993): "In practice the supply teacher lacks the advantage of specific information about pupils, such as those with social and emotional difficulties" (Galloway, 1993, p.165). "Supply teachers don't have as much control because "they don't know us", or "they don't know us that well", so "we have fun" (Wood & Knight, 1988, p.37).

A clear gap emerges between what teachers and principals expect from the RT with regard to the management of student behaviour, and what teachers and principals do to assist the RT in meeting those expectations.

Much of the difficulty experienced by RTs in maintaining student behaviour could be alleviated if the regular teacher's expectations were clarified and if his/her individual behaviour policy were made explicit to the RT. This finding is supported by other research (Stanley, 1991, p.86; Simmons, 1991, p.97; Ferry, 1987, p.135).

The relationship between RTs and the rest of the staff

The third issue is that of relationship, such as how the RT relates to the staff, and how the staff treat the RT. Although all the principals surveyed agreed (50% strongly agreed, 50% agreed) that it is important to have a system of introducing the RT in the staff room, it seems that this does not always happen, and varies dramatically from school to school. The RTs surveyed reported a high incidence of teacher indifference or unfriendliness. This is substantiated by Mullett (1989) cited in Galloway (1993, p.165). "Fifty-eight per cent of her respondents had worked in some schools where they found no welcome and no support." Observations of RTs in staff rooms confirm this data. The unknown RT is often left sitting alone and not spoken to. Informal discussions with other RTs has verified this as a not uncommon fact. `'Unintentionally, substitutes may be treated as "outsiders", not really part of the staff" (Brace, 1990, p.73). Or, as an experienced RT put it, "life in the staff room can be distinctly chilly for supplies... " (Lawrence, 1988, p.175).

The fact that 86% of teachers would prefer to choose their own RT, but only 38% of teachers actually are able to do so, and the fact that many teachers reported dissatisfaction with the performance of several RTs in their room, may be contributing factors to the indifferent attitude teachers often exhibit towards RTs. This has not been mentioned in any other research.

The ongoing professional development of RTs

The fourth issue identified in this pilot study is the continued development of the RT's professional skills as a teacher. Much relief work is in fact due to regular staff attending in service courses to implement teaching or curriculum innovations. The question is often asked by RTs how, when and where will they acquire this knowledge, if they are not included in these professional development (PD) days.

The question is a major one which has not been addressed thoroughly in this study. For a detailed analysis of the situation in Victoria, see Gill and Hand (1992).

From the principals' point of view there was a wide range of opinions as to who should be responsible for facilitating RTs ongoing training. Some felt it was up to the individual, some that the District Office should advise RTs of workshop opportunities, and others that RTs should be included in in-service courses organised for regular staff.

Principals commented that the cost for RTs to attend staff PD days is a bit of a problem, while several RTs commented that they felt they should be paid to attend such PD days. Gill and Hand (1992) found that there was a general "reluctance on the part of the RTs to carry the burden of their own in service costs, but a general willingness to share costs with the Ministry." In the UK the situation is again much the same: "Existing evidence suggests that in many areas casual supply teachers do not have access to in-service training or are not regularly informed about available courses or can only attend courses if they are prepared to forgo the pay they may otherwise have earned through supply teaching" (Shilling, 1991, p.6).

The RTs surveyed in this study indicated a small measure of self-motivated PD, mainly using informal methods. This would need further research to assess accurately, but compares favourably with Gill and Hand's research:

"... RTs had appeared not to be involved with much in-service activity. When asked if they felt their in service needs were taken as seriously as full time teachers, they responded overwhelmingly in the negative" (Gill & Hand, 1992, p.46). This also seems to be the case in the UK where RTs reported that "they gained useful and varied experience "on the job" yet were not offered in service training" (Trotter & Wragg, 1990, cited in Galloway, 1993, p.165).

Employment issues

The employment frequency rate for the RT is unpredictable. This may suit some RTs and be a source of frustration for others. Most RTs (93%) indicated that one or two schools employ them on a frequent basis. Some RTs are happy just doing relief work, but the majority of those surveyed indicated that they were not happy to continue relief teaching indefinitely, and were seeking full-time teaching positions. The age groupings and number of teaching years were not classified in this evaluation, which may have a direct bearing on RTs career plans, as indicated in Gill and Hand's (1992) study.

Principals responded (100% agree) that they have a reliable supply of adequately trained RTs, and in fact that there is really an over supply. This is very different from the general under supply of RTs in both the USA (Simmons, 1991) and the UK, (Galloway, 1993) and (Shilling, 1991). Despite this over supply, four our of six principals surveyed found it easy to obtain RTs when they needed them and two out of six found it difficult. The most difficult time to find RTs is in the winter and for staff PD days. Country schools find their RT supply more limited.

Most schools tend to use the RTs they already know and always try to get experienced teachers, although this isn't always possible, and then they fall back on new graduates or anyone they can get. The interviews with principals revealed that RTs who are reliable and competent are the ones most frequently used. The criterion used to judge the RT is their skill at classroom management. Gill and Hand (1992) suspect that the criteria used to employ RTs may not be based on academic qualifications.

The final employment issue which was evaluated was whether or not RTs found relief teaching stressful. Surprisingly, the responses were nearly evenly divided between stressful and non stressful. The variables not measured, which might impinge on the degree of perceived stress, are the amount of teaching experience, the RT's age, and the degree to which teaching is perceived as a career. This area would need further research.

Certain elements, such as unpredictability and constant change, while being listed as causing stress, are inherent in the job and are therefore to be expected. These findings are supported by Ferry (1987), Shilling (1991), Clark (1983), and Hemmings (1985) who equates relief teaching with being on a blind date: "You open the door, hope for the best, and from then on your approach may or may not succeed. Confusion may prevail. There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a casual relief" (Hemmings, 1985, p.11).

In juxtaposition to the stressful factors listed, 93% of the RTs responded that they had found relief teaching a valuable experience. When asked to list the beneficial factors, the most frequently mentioned was that relief teaching provides a broad experience of how things are handled in a variety of ways at different schools, with different classes and subject matter, and that this wide experience sharpens that RT's professional skills. This view is shared by Hemmings (1985) but questioned by Clark (1983).


The overall impact of the relief teaching programme is significant on the school's day to day operation, for all those persons directly involved. Primary RTs may represent as much as 15.7% of the primary teaching population in Western Australia and as such are a substantial influence. Although there are no statistics available at the moment on the number of RT teaching days each primary school pupil has in WA, studies in the USA indicate that "students spend as much as 5-10% of their actual class time with substitute teachers" (Brace, 1990, p.73).

"As the use of supply/RTs is seen as necessary to prevent interruption to other classes, these teachers contribute towards successful or unsuccessful schooling" (Wood & Knight, 1988, p.41). Not only do RTs provide a continuity of service, but they also enable regular staff to attend in service courses, thus facilitating curriculum initiatives and the introduction of new technologies into schools.

The assessment of this research indicates that there are definitely a number of ways in which the relief teaching programme could be improved. Expectations between teachers and RTs over following the teacher's set programme, marking of student work and management of student behaviour are not clarified, nor specified regularly, and reveal a high rate of divergent opinion. Principals and teachers feel strongly about the RT's ability to handle student behaviour problems, but relatively few teachers and principals give RTs the necessary assistance and specific input to meet those expectations.

Relief teaching is often treated in a marginal manner, with RTs often not enjoying the same status and support offered to regular staff. However without the services rendered by RTs schools could not function. With the increasing pressure to implement change and restructure in schools, with the ensuing increase in staff in service days, RTs are playing an increasingly significant role in the delivery of schooling. Put succinctly, "Supply teaching issues can no longer be dismissed as marginal" (Galloway, 1993,p. 167).


The relief teaching programme must be well organised and efficient to implement on a daily basis. (Brace, 1990, p.74).

1. RTs must be provided with enough information and support to able to fit into the school easily and harmoniously.

2. RTs must feel they are treated as professionals, and are a valuable part of the staff. (Brace, 1990, p.74).

3. RTs need to enter relief teaching "with a clear understanding of what to expect and how to approach difficulties." (Hemmings. 1985, p.11).


Brace, D.L. (1990). Establishing a support system for substitute teachers. NASSP Bulletin. May, 73-77.

Clark, D. (1983). On contract: A false internship. Pivot, 10(4), 44-45.

Clifton & Rambaran, R. (1985). Substitute teaching: Survival in a marginal situation. Educational research. Then and now. Hobart: Australian Association for Research in Education. 67-68.

Ferry, S.L. (1987). Don't help your students 'sink the sub'. NASSP Bulletin. December. 134-135.

Galloway, S. (1993). Out of sight, out of mind: A response to the literature on supply teaching. Educational Research, 35(2) Summer, 159-169.

Gill, B. & Hand, B. (1992). The professional standing of the replacement teacher in the education community. Education in Rural Australia, 2(1) 35-48.

Hemmings, R. (1985). The teacher at the end of a phone. Education News, 19(2) March, 9 10.

Lawrence, J. (1988). On the fringe. Education. Aug. 175-6.

Shilling, C. (1991). Supply teachers: Working on the margins. A review of the literature. Educational Research. 33(1) Spring, 3-11.

Simmons, B.J. (1991). Planning to improve the quality of the substitute teacher program. NASSP Bulletin, Jan. 91-98.

Stanley, S. (1991). Substitute teachers can manage their classrooms effectively. NASSP Bulletin, Feb, 84-88.

Wood, E. & Knight, J. 1988). I feel sorry for supply teachers ...: An ethnographic study. Unicorn, 15(1), 36-43.

Author: Anne Crittenden is a primary school teacher, an artist and relief teacher. Currently she is researching relief teachers and the nature of their work as a Master of Education student at Edith Cowan University.

Please cite as: Crittenden, A. (1994). Evaluation of the relief teaching programme in government primary schools in Western Australia. Issues In Educational Research, 4(2), 81-93.

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