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Hopes for 35-hour week are dashed

Employers rule out cap on hours but pledge more support staff, as long as no-cover action is suspended. Amanda Kelly reports

EMPLOYERS this week rejected demands for a 35-hour working week for teachers but promised to look at reducing workloads by giving schools more back-up staff.

But the offer from the National Employers' Organisation (NEO) depends on the two largest teachers' unions suspending their no-cover action, which was this week extended to more areas of the country.

It came as the first of four unions in England and Wales prepared to debate a joint motion condemning the Government for failing to reduce workloads and limit teachers' hours.

They want an independent inquiry, similar to the McCrone Committee in Scotland, to examine such issues, along with a review of teachers' pay.

Major demands include a 35-hour working week; maximum class contact time of 22.5 hours, marking and preparation time for all teachers of no less than one-third of class contact time and a simpler salary structure that would allow most teachers to reach a salary of pound;35,000.

The motion will be debated by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers at their conference in Torquay that begins on Monday.

The same motion will then go to the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' conferences over Easter. The Welsh teachers' union UCAC will vote on the issue in May.

If the Government fais to act, the resolution commits the unions to taking industrial action short of striking to limit working time to a maximum of 35 hours a week.

But Graham Lane, chair of the NEO, said: "We are simply not in a position to be able to offer a 35-hour week and to do so would be leading teachers up a blind alley that would lead to a brick wall.

"The whole Scottish system is different to ours and you cannot just pluck one element of their conditions of employment and catapult it into ours."

But Mr Lane said employers had discussed "groundbreaking" proposals to reduce teachers' workload that would be discussed with union leaders, once they had suspended their current no-cover action.

These include employing more administrative staff and technicians to ease the bureaucratic burden on teachers, as well as smaller class sizes.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the NASUWT, said it was "profoundly unhelpful" to rule out a change to contracted working hours before talks had even started.

The prospect of talks to end the action was dealt a further blow this week when the NASUWT executive decided to hold more ballots following a temporary suspension last week.

It said it was unwilling to enter into talks without the NUT. The NUT is insisting that before it considers stopping the action, ministers must signal an inquiry looking into teachers' working conditions as well the promised investigation of bureaucracy and red tape.

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