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Ministers must heed heads' warning

The uncompromising attitude of headteachers who voted this week to pull out of the workload agreement unless it is better funded is a shot across the bows for the Government rather than a torpedo below the waterline for the historic deal. It is a warning that ministers would be wise to heed, however.

The National Association of Head Teachers meeting in Cardiff showed that Education Secretary Charles Clarke has managed to take the intense heat out of last year's funding crisis. But as the association's school budgets survey revealed, many heads and governors are still struggling to make ends meet with existing commitments. Little surprise, then, that most members doubt that there will be enough extra money to provide half-a-day-a-week planning and preparation time for all teachers from September 2005.

The vehemence with which NAHT rank and file pressed this point at Cardiff against the advice of the executive underlines the very real fears heads have about being required to meet such entitlements without the means to do so. Heads know that teacher unions, whether they are signed up to the agreement or not, will be pressing hard for their members' statutory rights. It is their core gain from the agreement.

It is no coincidence either that misgivings about the workload deal have surfaced most strongly at the primary-dominated NAHT rather than the Secondary Heads Association. Secondary schools already timetable non-contact lessons though in practice many are lost when staff have to cover for absent teachers. Arranging for support staff to take over that supervision is not particularly expensive or controversial.

But in primary schools most of the 10 per cent preparation time has now to be created. And it is hard to see how this can be done without detriment to children's learning if it means leaving unqualified assistants to supervise classes for half a day a week - at a time when schools are laying off teachers because of falling pupil numbers.

What exactly a threat to pull out of an agreement already enacted in law amounts to remains to be seen. A management strike recently had to be headed off over the upper pay spine. The spontaneous refusal of heads a decade ago to carry out national tests cost John Patten, then the education secretary, his political career.

The Government is reluctant to provide earmarked funding because it regards management flexibility as fundamental to workforce reform. But given the opaqueness of schools funding, it is not surprising if many heads simply see this as ministers refusing to put their money where their mouth is.

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