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Martin Powell-Davies writes:

Reforming the School Workforce – 21 October 2002

The Government’s proposals on "Reforming the School Workforce" are a threat to education, teachers and support staff. The National Union of Teachers has been the only teaching union prepared to question the Government’s agenda. Now the NUT has a responsibility to organise against these threats and take action to win reforms that would genuinely improve workload and pay for all school staff.

The Government is cynically using teachers’ demands to have their intolerable workload reduced as a cover to implement their very different agenda. These ideas were set out in Estelle Morris’ "Professionalism and Trust" speech a year ago as a vision "to increase diversity, promote innovation and strip away regulatory burdens". In other words, they are part and parcel of the Government’s project to undermine comprehensive education and attack the pay and conditions of school staff, particularly through performance-related pay.

The Government says that the introduction of 50,000 more support staff will reduce teacher workload. Teachers would certainly welcome additional administrative and clerical support – but this may be only a small part of what the Government has in mind. They say their plans will allow 10% guaranteed ‘planning, preparation and assessment time’ to all teachers. But how will this be achieved?

The University of Warwick Institute of Education recently carried out research for the NUT on the role of teaching assistants in schools. Teachers confirmed that they valued the support and help of teaching assistants in providing additional support for small groups or individual pupils in lessons. However, opinions were divided on whether the use of teaching assistants reduced or actually increased teacher workload. That’s because schools can only make proper use of the skills of teacher assistants to support teachers and education if the staff teams have time to plan together – and that puts even more pressure on staff time.

The only way that these plans will allow teachers to increase their non-contact time is if teacher assistants are allowed to take classes themselves – and this is exactly what the Government proposes. A new category of advanced teaching assistants will be given responsibility for covering for absent teachers and, presumably, to take lessons so as to release teachers for marking and preparation time. This is a reform that the NUT cannot accept and neither should parents or, indeed, support staff.

The introduction of unqualified staff in these circumstances would be the thin edge of the wedge. Among the documents released by the DFES are draft Education (Teaching Work and Registration) Regulations which would legislate for unqualified staff teaching lessons and marking pupils’ work. This is what these proposals are really all about. No doubt it will be the most needy children in the most under-staffed schools that are most likely to be taught by unqualified staff. The Government looks to a future where teaching can be reduced to a simple "Gradgrind" curriculum of easily taught facts that unqualified staff can deliver in the absence of a qualified teacher. It is an attack on comprehensive education that we cannot allow.

In opposing these changes, teachers are in no way arrogantly stating their superiority over teaching assistants. However, we do claim the need to maintain teaching as a highly skilled profession that requires properly qualified staff. Asking underqualified staff to merely "child-mind" classes is educationally wrong and, in practice, can cause real difficulties. If staff are properly trained and qualified then why not pay them properly – as properly qualified teachers!

Teaching assistants are appallingly paid. They often have inadequate contracts that do not pay them for all the hours that they are asked to work, sometimes without holiday pay. Yet these reforms only exploit these assistants by asking them to carry out the work of teachers without being paid as teachers. Support staff unions should also oppose these proposals and work with the NUT in agreeing what should and should not be done by support staff. Unions urgently need to come up with agreed joint guidelines so that both teachers and support staff have the confidence to refuse work beyond agreed limits.

The lack of any educational understanding behind the Government’s proposals is revealed in their suggestions that schools increase class sizes, lengthen the school day and adopt longer lessons – even up to three hours! Genuine reductions in workload require the very opposite – smaller class sizes and a shorter teaching day for teachers so that marking and preparation can be carried out in the day instead of at home on weekends and evenings.

A shorter working week for teachers is the only genuine way of reducing teacher workload and to guarantee the minimum 20% non-contact time that the NUT is campaigning for. To achieve it, the Government needs to recruit more teachers – there is no other route. With adequate staffing, every school could have enough additional teachers to release all colleagues for non-contact time during the working week. But Estelle Morris’ "Time for Standards" consultation paper is quite blunt. When it comes to expanding teacher numbers, she says simply, "this is not an option". What the Government is offering instead is a cheap but very dangerous alternative that must be rejected.

But in rejecting the Government’s proposals, the NUT will be attacked by Ministers for rejecting "more non-contact-time for teachers". The NUT has to go on the offensive by exposing the Government’s real agenda and demand that they improve the pay and conditions of teachers so that schools can recruit and retain the staff they need. After all, we are not short of teachers – just teachers who are prepared to work in schools. There are nearly 300,000 qualified teachers who have left teaching who could be attracted back into the classroom by a Government really committed to improving education.

However, in the short-term, the NUT has to make clear to teachers that it isn’t just going to stand by and allow intolerable teacher workload to continue. It should implement 2002 Conference policy on workload. This called for a ballot of members to introduce a veto on increased demands on teacher working time and a refusal to cover for absent colleagues beyond the first day of an unforeseen teacher absence. But we also need a clear demonstration of our opposition to these reforms and the allied threat to replace national pay scales by localised performance-related pay. That means balloting NUT members for a national one-day strike. This should be used as a national day of action to explain to parents, teachers and support staff that the future of comprehensive education is under attack and that the NUT is not prepared to stand by and let it happen.