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Confusion over 35-hour week

The end of the school session saw most of Scotland's schools with the first stage of their McCrone agreements in place. Ironically, the authority with most problems was the one quickest off the mark in drawing up a local agreement and issuing it to schools as a general circular.

North Lanarkshire Council and the teachers' unions agreed guidelines on introducing the 35-hour week in March. But, in an illustration of the problems that arise over the nature of "professionalism" which is supposed to be at the heart of the teachers' settlement, the circular caused major problems when it arrived in schools, according to one secondary school union representative.

Last week witnessed a flurry of activity as at least 14 secondary schools in the authority took part in a "conciliation" exercise to resolve the disputes before staff went on holiday. Latest indications are that seven of North Lanarkshire's 26 secondaries have still not reached a resolution on the introduction of the new working week and will not finalise arrangements until the beginning of the new session.

The sticking points are the recommendations that staff meetings, including departmental ones, and formal assessment should take place outside the school day. There were major disagreements in some schools over what constituted formal assessment and what proportion of "collegiate time" should be allocated to these tasks.

A union representative said the situation in her school and in others was "a complete mess". She added: "McCrone was supposed to be about giving professional autonomy; this is prescriptive." Another union representative at a secondary school described her headteacher's initial attitude towards departmental meetings as "implacable" in his support for the authority's position.

Drew Morrice, secretary of the North Lanarkshire local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland, which was party to the circular issued to schools, agreed that the placing of departmental meetings and the amount of time to be given to formal assessment were "big issues".

He said there had been "a heightened atmosphere in schools" and a strong feeling that the timing of departmental meetings should not have been changed.

Mr Morrice added: "Teachers felt that they were being locked in and that there was the potential to increase the time spent in school. In retrospect, the wording of the agreement probably created some confusion in relation to meetings outwith the school day ."

Michael O'Neill, the director of education, said that because discussions in some schools were taking longer than expected, conciliation meetings were arranged in an effort to be helpful.

Speaking on the last day of the session, he said: "At this stage we are pleased with the fact that we have helped to resolve difficulties at school level. The vast majority of primary, special and nursery schools now have agreements. We believe our local agreement proved helpful."

The TESS understands there is now something of a mixed economy. Some schools continue to have departmental meetings outwith the pupil day, the outcome of conciliation resulted in others having meetings during the school day and a number have accepted a "split-time" deal in which staff can meet within and outwith the day.

Frank Berry, head of St Margaret's High in Airdrie and president of the North Lanarkshire branch of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said that discussions on the working week "had not been an easy exercise".

He welcomed the role of the conciliation process in resolving difficulties. "Headteachers have worked closely with staff and the directorate to ensure that agreements are reached at school level. The conciliation meetings proved to have been essential and worthwhile and have been carried out in the spirit of McCrone."

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