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Call yourself a professional?

The school year debate has acquired its own momentum: five-term years in some schools, Saturday working, an "eight to five" day, or simply permanent opening with everyone on shifts.And why not? Only a fool would say the way we do things today must be how we do things tomorrow.

But any re-structuring of schools and their staffing must take account of the decline in recruitment and retention. Many older staff are leaving because they are exhausted or can't stand the rate of change. Additional changes will not stop this.

For younger staff, conditions matter but the pay seems more significant. Their peers have higher salary ceilings, so they take any opportunity to get out and get on. Restructuring proposals do include longer salary scales, but the money seems to be dependent on a commitment to more work.

Such issues pale into insignificance next to the example of teaching in similar countries. Although comparability studies periodically take place, the results never get much of an airing. Perhaps newspaper editors and MPs see few rises in circulation or votes in headlines such as: "Teachers really do work in their holidays", "Many teachers take no recognisable break during their working day" or, worse, "Our children's cultural and academic mentors have to take holidays at peak times, so they cannot afford to go to the places where they might be able to re-charge their own cultural batteries".

Perhaps most interesting of all is what happens when you talk to individual teachers from abroad. Surely the "fact finders" know of examples such as:

* The French PE teacher who, after 10 years, earns more and works fewer hours than a UK department head in a large comprehensive with 21 years' experience.

* The Australian teacher who asked a colleague of mine with 40 years' service what he had done on his four sabbaticals. Apparently, for every ten years' service you get one over there.

* The Spanish teacher who works until 6pm some days, but gets three hours for lunch and three months' summer vacation.

* Virtually any French or German teacher, who is not compelled to cover for absent colleagues, and who teaches the odd Saturday morning, but has Wednesdays off.

* The American teacher, hitch-hiking in the West Country, who was horrified to learn that my ex-second-in-department had a pastoral role, untrained, with no separate time allocation or remuneration.

The way we work, and the way we may continue to work unless we are careful, is a poor version of what other "professionals" expect. The sort of work practices and pay deemed normal in medicine, law or management are not to be found in the working lives of state school teachers. Yet they are in many fee-paying schools and in most of the countries we are supposedly competing with. It's time we rediscovered the meaning of the word "profession".

Colin Padgett is head of department at an Essex comprehensive school.

If you have a strong opinion on a secondary subject write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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