Whatever our feelings about the current joint action by the teaching unions, let's ignore the Daily Mail headlines; it is not only militant teachers taking these actions. Teachers are facing a tough choice between the harm industrial action might cause to learning and the harm that staff shortages and high absentee rates are already causing. One irate parent called a radio phone-in, talking about how "if teachers were doctors, then their patients would die". Yet although families may be inconvenienced, no child will die as a result of a four-day week. Even the General Teaching Council's press release did not condemn the action.
Let's also ignore the emotive talk about children's life chances; the covering of additional classes by busy teachers is generally a damage-limitation exercise. Children are already suffering if they have no permanent, consistently present teacher. If you are teaching at a secondary school, and are timetabled to teach three out of five lessons, you will have made plans for your free sessions. If you are asked to cover a lesson in a subject you are not qualified to teach, not only will these plans be postponed, but the lessons you are supposed to teach will probably also suffer, through fatigue and resentment. In primaries, uncovered classes are often split, leaving every class to deal with several under-stimulated extra bodies - again, the children you have planned to teach will suffer. In every workplace there can be a thin line between adrenalin and stress; the morning staffroom roll-call can often push teachers to the wrong side of that line.
One depressing effect of increased delegation of budgets and management responsibilities to schools has been that headteachers are far less likely to cover classes. A crucial way of keeping heads in touch has been lost to the demands of self-management. This may be acceptable in secondaries, where teachers are accustomed to a distant principal. But many primary heads may be losing credibility with their staff through their reluctance to teach. Some of the long-term solutions to supply problems may already be in place. New technologies and more individualised learning could combine so that pupils, particularly in secondary schools, will be able to work virtually independently. A re-engineered curriculum could also motivate pupils to use any teacher-less time as effectively as possible.
The measures that the Government has introduced to iprove teacher supply and morale may render the action of the unions unnecessary in years to come. However, in the short term, we are faced with a cadre of technology-savvy teachers who are not only willing, but able to leave the profession. Two short-term solutions spring to mind. One applies to London and the South-east in particular. If all those teaching emigres who now work in academia, quangos, government departments, unions and, yes, think-tanks, committed themselves to a few weeks-a-year teaching, this could ease the South-east's shortages.
The other is for schools to experiment in paying teachers overtime to cover extra classes. Encouragingly, this idea has now been taken up by Graham Lane, the Local Government Association's education chairman. Any school which uses permanent staff to cover for absences or unfilled vacancies is effectively saving money. This is often not the school's intention. Most schools would far prefer to fill that vacancy, or employ a supply teacher for that day, but this is often proving impossible. If teachers cover for absent or non-existent colleagues, shouldn't they share the rewards of this cost-saving?
Schools pay approximately pound;150 per day for a supply teacher. If a primary class is split five ways, every teacher receiving extra children would receive an additional pound;30 for that day. In a secondary school with a five-lesson day, a teacher would receive pound;30 for each extra lesson that she covered. This is not a huge amount of money, but would act as a goodwill gesture.
Could overtime be paid within the present National Pay and Conditions Document, so that teachers covering classes are paid on a pro-rata basis as "short-notice teachers"? If not, this is one of many reasons why the teacher's contract needs a radical overhaul.
Paying overtime is used throughout professions and trades as an acceptable form of reward. And one school, a city technology college, is using its freedom of contracts to pay teachers overtime on a purely voluntary basis for additional classes. Step forward the most famous state school in the UK, Thomas Telford School, in Shropshire. Overtime may not get all comprehensives 100 per cent A* to Cs, or primaries maximum passes at level 4s, but it could prove a significant boost for teachers' morale, and children's continuity of learning.
Joe Hallgarten is a research fellow in education policy at the Institute for Public Policy Research. The institute is running a project on the future of teaching. For further information email email@example.com