15 minutes that stopped the clock

Francis Beckett

Altering the length of the school day has always been controversial, as was proved again last week.

Pope John Paul II secondary in Salford was closed on the first day of this term because of a one-day strike in protest at a longer school day imposed without consultation with the unions. However, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has now suspended a planned programme of one-day strikes to give the local education authority a chance to broker a peace deal.

The NASUWT says that any increase in hours needs to be negotiated with the unions. "We will support any group of members where there is a unilateral change in working hours," says its regional officer, Peter McGloughlin. But headteacher Ron Steele says negotiation with the unions is only necessary if the change brings the hours above the 1,265 specified in the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act.

Starting this term, the school's day begins at 8.45am instead of 9am. Mr Steele says the change is not so much to fit in more teaching as to enable the school to look after pupils more effectively in a catchment area which has considerable social problems.

The extra 15 minutes provides an additional five minutes in the morning break. This, says Mr Steel, is to allow for time for a snack during a 20-minute break between 9.45 am and 10.05 am. Many pupils, he says, arrive without having eaten breakfast.

It also provides an extra five minutes on one lesson, and an extra five minutes to increase the registration session at the end of the day from five to ten minutes. This session is used not only for registration but for pastoral care and prayers. The day finishes, as before, at 3.05pm.

Pope John Paul II school is a small voluntary-aided school, with 400 pupils aged 11-16. Sixteen of the 25 teachers are members of NASUWT, and the union's representative, Bill Williams, says: "It may be only 15 minutes a day, but it's 48 extra hours a year. I'm in favour of turning ourselves into a social institution as well as an educational institution if we have the extra people to do it. We work a very full day as it is. There are very few evenings we get away before 5pm.

"One of the reasons schools want a longer day is because the Government wants it, even though there is no educational advantage," he says. "They think it will put them in the clear when Ofsted comes."

He also complains there was no consultation with the union - and that even now the chairman of governors, who is the local parish priest, has not met the staff representatives.

Mr Steele wants to "marshal time as a resource". The new system gives him exactly the extra parcels of time he felt he needed in order to give the children the right amount of break time and pastoral care. "I feel let down. By bringing in industrial action an element of the staff has gone against the management style we are evolving."

He has, he says, followed both the Department for Education and Employment regulations and the accepted procedure of his own union, the National Union of Teachers. He consulted his teachers, and tried out a number of models with them. But he was not willing to regard it as an issue he should formally negotiate with the unions.

He regrets that NASUWT headquarters have been drawn in. "They have not been on the journey we have for the past 18 months." And he feels that industrial action over the issue is particularly inappropriate in a Catholic school. But both he and Mr Williams are pleased the LEA is taking a hand. Both sides are avoiding aggravating the situation until after the meeting to be chaired by the chief education officer, David Johnstone.

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