'Clouded judgment and simple silliness'

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
It is a pity that the writer of the TES Scotland's editorial, "Shortchange d by convenience" (June 12) should have allowed personal inconvenience to cloud his judgment on the "asymmetric week" in schools. I'm happy to take the writer to task over the idea that the Friday afternoon closure of schools is "merely" for teachers' convenience. It was a piece that undermined the normally thoughtful and dispassionate tone of TES Scotland editorials.

West Lothian schools inherited the asymmetric week from Lothian Region. The arrangement didn't simply "date only from Lothian days", implying that it is of recent vintage only. Many schools have operated the asymmetric week successfully for more than a decade.

Children in West Lothian spend exactly the same time in class as every other pupil in Scotland. Teachers do not "have to cram too much into every day", since they have the same number of hours and minutes each week in which to teach their pupils as every other teacher in Scotland. This is achieved by simply adding half an hour onto each of the other days.

It is simple silliness to make comments such as: "Time with children is more important than notional time spent on professional activities." There isn't a teacher in the world who would compromise on the importance of the time spent in direct contact with children. But every teacher worth his or her professional salt will also point out the importance of continuous professional development of skills and knowledge. Teachers and education authorities (and the Scottish Office Education Minister and HMI and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and, believe it or not, most parents) know that there is a place for both aspects of a teacher's job. The asymmetric week allows West Lothian to offer its staff access to a programme of staff development that simply cannot be bettered by any other Scottish education authority - and our staff have the time to make full and proper use of the opportunities on offer.

Next session we are offering a programme of more than 400 courses on Friday afternoons. And every single course taken up by teachers in West Lothian is rigorously evaluated after its completion - content, timing, audience and tutor are all examined, and any perceived failings are put right before the next time the course is offered.

We take the asymmetric week very seriously. Early last year we proposed changing the arrangement so that every school in West Lothian closed on the same afternoon. Previously half closed on Wednesday and the others on the Friday. We felt we could maximise the effectiveness of the professional development on offer - same-day closure for all schools gives us a bigger pool of teachers for meetings and in-service. We made the change only after conducting a review encompassing all staff, parents and school boards. The dominant view at that time was that the asymmetric week was "a good thing".

There were pockets who didn't like it, and some preferred Wednesday and others Friday. But we were able to demonstrate to the education services committee that most parents accepted the efficacy of the arrangement for the professional developmen t of the county's teachers.

When we put the new arrangement in place on Friday afternoons, the authority agreed to carry out a full review of the arrangement before the end of its first year of operation. In May of this year, every family with children in our schools and every member of staff received a form seeking their views. At the same time, we sought the views of all headteachers, professional associations, school boards and parent-teacher associations

The response was overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the arrangement that we have been operating since August 1997. Approximately 73 per cent of parents who responded (we gathered almost 3,000 responses from parents alone) felt that the asymmetric week was worthwhile and should be retained.

In fact, only 13 per cent of parents were against retention of the arrangement. (The balance of 14 per cent expressed no strong opinion either way.)

We in West Lothian have tested rigorously the views of our "customers". Can the editorial writer tell us what research he or she has done to back up the petty views peddled in that silly little piece? I doubt it.

Long before this peddler of personal prejudice ordered us so insultingly to "Ask any parent" we in West Lothian decided to do just that. We asked. Parents answered.

John Connell is policy development manager for West Lothian education services.

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