Calling time on long hours

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Clive Jenkins, one of the high-profile union leaders of the 1970s, used to enjoy musing about how cushy life would be at the start of the new millennium. "Factories will be run by a bank of computers, one man and a dog," he said. "The dog will make sure the man doesn't touch the computers."

Other seers made similar predictions about teaching. By this stage, all pupils should have been receiving virtual-reality lessons from 3D computer-graphic "teleteachers", leaving the real ones to practise their tennis backhand or learn another language.

If only. Teachers, it seems, now put in more hours than ever. Last year, for example, primary teachers were working 52.8 hours a week on average - two more than in 1996 and four more than in 1994.

No wonder teachers' unions are pressing for the 35-hour week granted to the Scots, while headteachers are this week calling for a 20-hour limit on class-contact time and thousands of extra teachers and support staff. Like Philip Larkin, the profession is now asking itself: "Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?" Some senior teachers and school managers responded to that question by "downshifting" to less demanding jobs (one head became a school caretaker). But three developments, other than increased workload, suggest that many more may soon choose this option: 45 per cent of the teaching force is now aged over 45; pay differentials between school managers and teachers have narrowed; and pay and conditions for supply teachers are improving (see pages 13 and 36). The conjunction of these factors should frighten education ministers as they await the findings of the current workload review.

But at least they must know what would discourage more teachers from downshifting or retiring early: a significant increase in non-contact time. This will, of course, mean that even more teachers have to be recruited. But ministers will just have to swallow hard and get on with it. After all, as a government advisory committee pointed out last year, a balanced, happy worker is more productive than one who is stressed out. Who set up that committee? None other than the Department for Education and Employment.

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