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Blunkett concedes on workload study

MINISTERS say they are prepared to find the cash for measures to ease the pressure on teachers. As a major review into workload begins, they have agreed to a joint committee with unions and employers to draw up reforms that will have a major claim on funds in the comprehensive spending review due next year.

Today or early next week the government, unions and employers are expected to agree a remit for the review by management consultant PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The firm has been told to produce costed findings by early autumn. It will report back to a steering group of unions, employers and government. That group will draw up concrete proposals for change.

Mr Blunkett agreed to the tripartite group at a ground-breaking meeting between the parties. And he conceded teachers' contracts could be changed as a result of the review. But he continues to oppose a 35-hour week, and pay will form no part of PriceWaterhouseCooper's remit.

Union leaders were sceptical before Tuesday night's meeting, fearing a re-run of earlier studies that produced few benefits - including a study by Coopers and Lybrand, now part of PWC. But most came away from the 90-minute meeting in Sanctuary Buildings' cathedral room hailing a potentially "historic" breakthrough in uniongovernment relations.

Mr Blunkett's special adviser claimed that these were "not negotiations but consultations" on PWC's remit. But unions say ministers onceded major ground, particularly in agreeing the steering group.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said any proposals agreed to by all three parties would be "unstoppable". Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, called the arrangement "unique".

The only sceptical note came from Nigel de Gruchy, outgoing leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. "There was a lot of circumlocution," he said. And there was still no guarantee of a new teachers' contract, NASUWT's long-standing goal. But he did admit: "I think I was the only person getting upset."

If the process breaks down, classroom unions could yet take industrial action in line with their joint conference motion.

The PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultants will look at workload in a representative sample of at least 70 schools in England and Wales. They will identify good practice and the use of technology and support staff. Unions want the consultants' remit extended to look at staffing levels and limits on contact time. These were key features of the Scottish McCrone agreement that prompted the joint union motion demanding a similar inquiry in England and Wales.

Unions will meet employers on Tuesday to discuss short-term measures to ease the burden caused by teacher shortages.

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