In 2001, the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers refused to cover for unplanned absences of more than three days. This was in protest over teachers'
excessive workload. They wanted some changes to their contract.
Eventually, the action was suspended and talks began between the Government, employers and all the unions, including those representing support staff. The employers and support-staff unions also began talks on a career structure for teaching assistants and other school employees.
Far from imposing a centralised solution, the Government initiated, under school standards minister David Miliband, a spirit of partnership between the Government, Department for Education and Skills' officials, the unions and the employers. Consultants were engaged to test different ideas over how to reduce the workload in schools that had volunteered.
An agreement was reached for all parties to sign up and to promulgate. At this stage in early 2003, the NUT decided not to sign because of its fear that teaching assistants would be used to replace teachers. However, all others did sign, including the organisations that represent teachers in church and foundation schools, as well as local authority-maintained ones.
The issue of funding was a "red herring". Money had been put into the three-year settlement. In reality, it is not possible to calculate the costs to each school for any of the workload reforms, but all agree the costs in 20034 were relatively small. The main costs will be in 20056, when the promise of 10 per cent non-contact time for all teachers is due to be implemented. That is when there is over pound;1 billion headroom in the settlement. The 2.5 per cent teachers' pay award for the next two-and-a-0half years will help to keep pressures on school budgets lower than they have been recently.
The fears of the NUT are unfounded and if they were present at the on-going talks between Government, unions and employers, they would be able to influence the debate and the decisions being made. As a member of the employers, I would oppose classes not being under the responsibility of a qualified teacher, but that does not mean other staff cannot be involved in helping learning.
Teaching assistants now help children with reading, music and sport, and they will receive more professional training in order to help them in that role. Teachers will be able to concentrate more on teaching and managing learning, supported by other staff.
In education, it is remarkable how almost every change produces opposition which is often not based on the facts. The workload survey published by The TES last week shows that many teachers are not aware of the changes that are being made to their contracts over the next two years. These well-thought-out changes are to raise educational standards and make teachers more effective. Reducing the time teachers have to cover for absent staff and giving all teachers, especially primary staff, preparation time every week off timetable will be welcomed.
Increasingly, a much greater contribution to learning is being made by support staff. Money has been allocated to local education authorities to train more than 7,000 high-level teaching assistants by September 2004 and more than 10,000 the next year.
In spite of falling rolls in some areas, there are a record number of teachers now working in schools. These reforms will not see teachers being replaced by other staff but will allow teachers to become leaders of a team of professionals involved in the learning process.
Already, other European countries are looking with keen interest at these developments. The fact that at both national and local level talks on these arrangements involve all the teaching and support-staff unions (excluding the NUT) is a new development.
Many schools now have more staff than most private companies. Their budgets are larger than those of some district councils or council departments. For too long we have expected teachers to do much more than concentrate on teaching and learning. The changes agreed to their contracts reduce their workload and will mean schools will be run more appropriately than before.
Some teachers are still pessimistic. What they need to do is to visit a school that is implementing the changes. Schools that are making the changes are already finding that educational standards are rising - and that was one of the main reasons the employers and Government started down this road in July 2001.
Doug McAvoy, Letters 26
Graham Lane is chair of the Local Government Association education executive