Britain's teachers run but stand still

9th December 2005 at 00:00
I'm surprised that the British economy is starting to flag. Why isn't it bullish now that teachers get 10 per cent of each day for planning and assessment? Statistically, this new measure should have the tills ringing.

Let me explain.

According to the recent census, there are 438,000 serving teachers in the UK. Assuming the official school day is six hours long, that's 36 minutes per person freed up - which means, in total, a colossal 262,800 teacher-hours floating around to be spent in shopping centres and coffee shops, every single day.

Teachers are frugal folk. They'd rather spend on their overpriced houses, though that doesn't mean that they're ungrateful for the Government's new initiative. They appreciate that in this climate of short-term contracts, downsizing and outsourcing, to be given extra time is not only countercultural but downright brave of ministers. And 36 minutes a day is an incredible privilege - almost enough time to fix a jammed photocopier or track down the student who missed detention.

Every little helps, of course, but teachers know that even this generous gift of time will be instantly whittled away by changes in the British way of life. Unfortunately, everything takes longer nowadays. Just as teachers'

salaries will never keep up with house prices, their prep periods will never keep up with demands on their time.

In the past 50 years road traffic has increased by 700 per cent, road space by just 25 per cent. The other Saturday, my brother spent an hour trapped in the car park at his local Tesco in Bury, Lancashire - a place where a residential building boom is leading to frequent gridlock. In the end, he abandoned his vehicle and walked until he found a taxi. In total, he wasted an entire week's worth of planning and preparation time. Luckily, he's a builder.

Not that builders don't work hard, of course. Teachers know that napping in the Transit after a pie and a fag for, say, 36 minutes, is a necessary counterpoint to draining physical labour. Furthermore, they would never dream of mentioning the fact that people in other professions waste far more time every single day than teachers now get to plan in a week. It would be churlish to point out the findings of a recent study by Proudfoot Consultants and Nicholas Crafts, of the London School of Economics: that workers, on average, waste 37 per cent of each day in the office. That's equivalent to 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product, or pound;90 billion per year. Not that it really matters.

Teachers aren't free to waste so much time, seeing as their days are minutely timetabled. It would be impossible for them to leave the answering machine in charge and take the Times crossword to the loo for, say, 36 minutes. So it hardly matters that, in another study by Clearswift, 40 per cent of UK workers admitted spending over an hour, every single day, emailing friends and forwarding jokes.

Besides, the average teaching day is short compared to most other jobs. And the holidays are excellent. Again, it would be petty to note that teachers and lecturers do more unpaid overtime than any other profession - nearly Pounds 5,000 per person per year; or that, according to the University of Massachusetts, workers who do such overtime are 61 per cent more likely to become ill. If you look at the physical manifestations of overwork, they're serious - everything from high cholesterol to cancer. Mustn't grumble, though.

So it looks like teachers will take their 10 per cent and make the most of it. Because, as every historian knows, revolution only begins when conditions are improving - and a measly 36 minutes is hardly going to make a difference. If anything, this new measure is an excellent illustration of the culture of low expectations that's so prevalent among British teachers.

Here in Ontario, Canada, we get 72 minutes - 25 per cent of the daily schedule - for planning and assessment. It means we stay focused, are well-organised, and can put plenty of energy into teaching. Since moving here, I've learned that a 40-hour week is nothing to feel guilty about - and that weekends are for leisure. The economy, by the way, is fine.

Nicholas Woolley teaches in Ontario, Canada

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