If you want a good row, talk about changing teachers' contracts. You know the scene. Up pops some think tank suggesting that teachers are all overpaid and under-occupied. Then, in the best music-hall tradition, a teachers' union leaders threatens all sorts of dire consequences if anyone dares threaten the existing conditions of service.
It is good knockabout stuff. However, there are much more serious issues at stake and we fail to debate them coolly and rationally at our peril.
It is hard to think of any group of workers that has not had to re-appraise its conditions of service over the past 20 years. Teachers have already done this both as a result of enforced changes and in the light of the new circumstances brought about by local management of schools. Equally, so have most other workforces in both the public and private sectors.
We should not automatically jump to the conclusion that such a discussion will lead to a deterioration in conditions of service. No organisation or business can afford to lock itself forever into conditions of service which have applied at a particular point in history. Circumstances change and both employers and employees have to think carefully about what is appropriate for a new age.
Society is changing and with it patterns of employment. In the next 10 years, it is estimated that the female share of total employment is projected to increase from 46 per cent to 48 per cent. More significantly, the numbers of part-time employees are projected to increase by 11 per cent. Self-employment too is likely to rise. There is increasing evidence that employees are looking for more flexible patterns of work. Not everyone wants a career path which involves them working full-time.
Again, we must not always assume that temporary or part-time work is a second-best option. Sometimes, it suits personal and family circumstances. Work can be balanced with other commitments. Equally some people do not want to be locked in to regular working hours.
Recent research suggests that many employers use flexible working practices and have adapted them in response to employee demand. Perish the thought then that some teachers may be prepared to give up their automatic right to long summer holidays if they could exchange that for more flexible working practices over the rest of the year.
But if changes in society are affecting teachers, so are changes in the way we think about education. Few people now believe that education can be confined to the hours between 9am and 3.30pm. Increasingly, after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, weekend schools, and summer literacy schools are on offer across the country. Unfortunately, the assumption always seems to be that these initiatives mean existing employees being forced to do more for less.
It does not take a lot of imagination to realise that opportunities exist for new kinds of contracts for teachers. For example, some teachers may be happy to work on contracts which assume a three-shift working day, where they work in rotation. Many other workers find this highly acceptable. Equally, other teachers may simply wish to be employed in the twilight hours, as this suits their domestic circumstances.
In some places, such as early-years centres, teachers have willingly accepted an all-year-round working arrangement which has allowed them to take holidays in a much more flexible way.
Of course, part of the difficulty is that current debates about teachers' contracts assume that we continue to provide education in the way that we have always done. Indeed, for all the massive social, cultural, scientific and economic change over the past 150 years, the organisation of teaching and learning today looks remarkably similar to that in the past. As David Hargreaves of Cambridge University once memorably pointed out: "Schools are still modelled on a curious mix of the factory, the asylum and the prison."
No one yet fully understands how the application of information and communications technology could revolutionise the classroom of tomorrow. But it is conceivable that there may even be opportunities for home working among teachers as they offer individual tuition to students working in schools. Or, if students see learning taking place at all times of the day (and night), teachers may be employed in a much more flexible way, working on a satellite basis from a school.
There is a certain irony in all of this. Good teachers are presumably pointing out to their students that they face an uncertain world. Flexibility is the name of the game. Frequent changes of employment are likely. The global economy means that national boundaries become less relevant as companies become more choosy about where they locate.
Most importantly of all, training and retraining will be essential if employees are to stay in work. Yet, what sort of message does it give out if teachers remain locked into historic conditions of employment with little willingness to consider new ways of working. More importantly, it is likely that workers of the future will demand new types of education. After all, the educational needs of those working part-time or at home will be different.
With concern about the quality of graduates entering the profession, the nature of teachers' contracts could have an impact on perceptions. Will teaching present itself as a flexible, dynamic profession or will it be locked into working practices which are increasingly outmoded in a changing economy?
Now is the time to act. Here is an opportunity for interested parties to get together, aside from the hurly-burly of the annual pay round and away from the spotlight of the soundbite. Even a discussion would be a start with the possibility of looking at experiments involving willing volunteers.
It is unlikely that any government would wish to impose wholesale changes on the contracts of more than half a million workers. Yet, the choice before us is stark. Are we prepared to continue to ignore an issue which is increasingly being driven by social and educational forces? Or, are we prepared to look with vigour and imagination at alternative ways of working that may satisfy personal objectives and educational priorities?
David Bell is director of education and libraries for Newcastle City Council