Amid the many initiatives that tumbled out of the Department for Education in March was a proposal that the school day be extended. David Blunkett said it was not enough to educate children during normal school hours and that he intended to establish an after-hours "entitlement" for older primary and secondary pupils. Opportunities to take part in "study-type activities" were taken for granted in the private sector, he said, and he welcomed the growing number of state schools that were following suit. The longer day would be used to accommodate supervised homework, revision sessions and masterclasses.
The unions howled with pain. There is currently no limit on the hours teachers work except those they impose themselves, but many teachers are arguably already working too long and too hard. The Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act requires teachers to work 1,265 hours a year "under the direction of the head" or in school. But they must also "carry out such duties as are necessary in the fulfilment of their professional responsibilities".
The last survey of working hours was carried out four years ago by the School Teachers' Review Body. It found that primary and secondary teachers worked an average of 50 hours a week; approximately a quarter of those were after 6pm or at weekends. Secondary heads had the heaviest workloads, working on average 61 hours per week. Primary heads averaged 55 hours. "I don't think anyone would suggest workloads have lightened since then," says John Howson of consultancy and research company Education Data Surveys.
Pat Martin, 55, has been head at St Michael's nursery and infant school in Workington, Cumbria, for 12 years. She feels like a hamster on a wheel. "It doesn't matter how much you work, at the end of the day you can't keep on top of this torrent of paperwork that is hitting you."
Pat Martin stays up until the small hours on Saturday nights to deal with paperwork. It was 3.45am on a Sunday morning when she opened the letter that told her she was eligible for early retirement. "I would never advise a child now to go into the teaching profession," she says. "And that is sad, because I've loved my job all my life." Pat has applied for early retirement.
When Friday magazine asked a selection of teachers to make a note of the hours they worked during the week of Monday March 20 to Friday March 24, the totals ranged from 51 to 62 hours. The teachers had little or no non-contact time in school. Some were working during holidays and half-terms - and finding health and relationships under strain. Yet without exception, they said that they loved their job.
Newly qualified teacher Maureen Sheerin, 32, teaches drama and English at a challenging inner-city comprehensive in east London. She worked for 60 hours and 35 minutes during the week - including all day on the Sunday. She worked every weekday evening except one. "I tend not to do much on Tuesday night because it is my busiest teaching day," she notes, after a day in which she has worked more than eight hours without a break.
Apart from food shopping, the only non-school activity Maureen managed that week was an hour of in-line skating in the park on Wednesday evening, before settling down to a two-and-a-half hour lesson planning session. "Not very productive," she writes. "Hoped the exercise would invigorate me, but I feel just as tired. I want to go home (Manchester) this weekend for my mum's birthday, but it will be difficult to relax and enjoy myself if I haven't done my planning and resource-making thoroughly."
A former actress, Maureen comes from a family of teachers and knew the hours would be long. "Sometimes I think I'm actually crazy," she says. "But as an NQT my feeling is that it's better to invest the time now, and hopefully anything I produce I'll be able to use again and again. But my sister works an average 60 hours per week and she's been teaching a lot longer than me."
Maureen, who sleeps with earplugs to dull the noise of the air conditioning unit in the restaurant underneath her flat, has two sleepless nights during the week and has difficulty keeping in touch with friends. "School is my main priority. I'm conscious that some people, if they knew how much I work, would just say 'Oh, for God's sake get a life'. But I was looking for something fulfilling that would use the skills I think I have."
She wants a life beyond school in future, though. "What scares me now is how on earth do you fit a family life into this scenario? That's something I've got to address seriously."
Jean Heywood, 49, is pastoral co-ordinator at Rawthorpe high school in Huddersfield, a 480-pupil comprehensive in an urban regeneration area. She teaches life skills and PSE. When she kept a diary of her working week, she found she had put in 62 hours, at school and at home.
On a typical day, Wednesday March 22, she arrives at school at 8.15am. She manages a coffee break in the morning but no break at lunchtime because she has a meeting with the head. There is a meeting with a parent after school. She gets home at 6pm and works until 9.30pm on reports. She wakes up at 3.30am "worrying about school issues".
Jean Heywood says it is not the long hours that stress her, so much as what happens during them. "It's constant, constant pressure once you're in the building," she says. "There is not a moment when there isn't something happening. I find that preparation for teaching ends up being well down the priority list because you prioritise the body in front of you. I feel guilty about that."
As pastoral co-ordinator, in a typical week she sees at least 25 distressed children. She is also first call for admissions enquiries and visits. Her 11 scheduled non-contact periods are invariably interrupted. "It's rare that I get the pleasure of something not happening in that time," she comments.
Work often disturbs her sleep. "Sometimes I just lie there wondering what on earth I am going to do about a situation," she says. "Last week, a girl told me that she was pregnant and I was thinking in the night about who needs to know and what arrangements need to be made. Or I might just be worrying about making sure I remember what I've said I would do, and that an appropriate plan has actually been formulated for a child."
Jean Heywood has elderly parents living nearby to consider, plus a partner and his two grown-up children. She was warned by her doctor that a series of minor ailments she suffered last year were stress-related. "I do not see how I can do the job I do - at the level at which it needs to be performed - into the distant future," she says. "I want to believe my life is balanced and I'm handling it, but I suspect the balance is in favour of work, not life."
Lesley Leckie Lesley Leckie, 40, is acting deputy head at Trelai primary school on the outskirts of Cardiff. She has two daughters, aged 15 and 12. Her husband, a former primary head, had a stress-induced nervous breakdown in 1998 and has just been granted early retirement. When she made a note of her week, she found that she had worked around 51 hours, not including evening runs to the supermarket to buy fruit for the infant tuck shop.
Monday begins at 8.10am when she covers reception and assembly, followed by a stocktake "racing round school tracking down bits and pieces". She misses break, has a team meeting, an Inset session and spends the evening sorting through the school accounts, getting them ready for the auditor.
By the end of the day she is exhausted. By Tuesday night, the diary records that she "can't even think" when she collects her daughter from the youth club at 9pm.
Can she continue to work like this? She sighs. "I don't know how I could fulfil it doing any less, but I feel very little job satisfaction these days. A week when I don't do any supporting lets down my colleagues. I love my job, but I feel less and less of the satisfaction that I used to get from it. Sometimes I hardly see children unless they've been naughty." Although she is meant to spend half her time in support teaching and half in administration, the head and other staff were absent so she didn't do any teaching at all that week.
Lesley Leckie describes herself as a "teacher first, mother second and wife last". Her daughters, she says, "are very understanding of mum being shattered, that sort of quietness where you can't speak". What about her marriage? "School dominates really. We have to try and make time for each other and it's not in the week, that's for sure. Weekends are very precious."
Paul Dempsey, 37, is head of Year 10 at Trinity school, an 1,100-pupil Catholic comprehensive in Leamington, Warwickshire. He has 181 students in his charge and oversees a tutor team of seven, as well as teaching English and history at GCSE. He worked over 55 hours during the sample week, including a number at the weekend.
By 9.15am on Tuesday, he has planned and given a year assembly, discussed work experience arrangements for a pupil with a colleague, written a letter for parents' evening and sent it for copying and chastised latecomers. "Period 1 is my first non-contact of the week. I cover for a sick colleague and teach a Y11 class," he notes.
Paul takes his first call from a worried parent at 8.25am. "Wonder what the chances would be of getting instant access to a minister of state for education, MP or doctor at the same time in the morning," he muses in his diary. In an average lunchtime, the phone in the staffroom goes 20 times; 15 times at break is not unusual. On Thursday he finally gets to eat his sandwiches at 5.10pm.
Described by his wife (also a teacher) as "irritatingly happy", Paul gets rid of stress by playing five-a-side football a couple of times a week with colleagues. Still, he says, "there are times when you're sitting in the car on the way home and your head is absolutely buzzing. When there are social problems you don't just pack it up into the briefcase; it's not like marking." An Everton season ticket holder, he missed a match at the weekend to spend three hours finalising groupings for Year 10's visit to a local conference centre for a business day.
"At Christmas I worked for five days in the holidays to mark coursework and prepare work," he says. "At half-term I came in to school for three of the five days to help Year 11 students complete coursework. In the summer I spend at least one week preparing for the coming term.
"Yes, I know that we get 13 weeks holiday and finish at 3pm, and it's only teaching kids in subjects that are obviously easier than they used to be. but it's my vocation, and for once I'd really like the experts to stop telling me how badly I'm doing my job."