But NUT dissent and a row over funding has cast a shadow over moves to cut teachers' workload. Warwick Mansell reports
ALL but one of the largest unions this week signed a far-reaching reform programme to cut teachers' workloads, but headteachers are threatening to pull out if the Government fails to provide the cash.
With the exception of the National Union of Teachers, all unions will now work jointly with ministers until at least 2006 to to cut working hours and offer more personalised learning for pupils.
Twenty-one months after industrial action by the two biggest classroom associations forced the Government to review workloads, unions and employers signed a joint agreement with ministers on Wednesday.
The 22-page document sets out a string of changes, including the transfer of routine administrative tasks to support staff, guaranteeing teachers time out of lessons to do marking, and cutting the time they must cover for absent colleagues.
A 12-member panel of heads - dubbed the "juke-box jury" - will issue termly reports on the Government's progress in cutting bureaucracy. And all parties will meet monthly to assess how the reforms are being implemented.
But the NUT is being excluded after its executive voted unanimously to reject the proposals over the Government's decision to allow a new breed of "super assistants" to cover for teachers. As leaders of other unions and teachers' employers travelled to the Department for Education and Skills in Westminster for a signing photocall, the NUT invited journalists to a "non-signing" lunch nearby.
It also took out another advert in The TES this week to attack the agreement. But it ruled out any immediate industrial action against the use of assistants to cover lessons.
Instead, general secretary Doug McAvoy pledged to mount a campaign to get teachers and parents to persuade heads not to use support staff as "cheap" substitutes.
The union is still urging ministers to give it a place on the group which will monitor the agreement's implementation.
In an interview with The TES, school standards minister David Miliband pledged that teachers would see lighter workloads by 2006, as well as becoming part of an "empowered profession" in which thousands of support staff would help deliver learning better tailored to pupils' individual needs.
He said all tachers would see their workloads reduced, giving most the "space, time and the support staff to concentrate on teaching".
But Mr Miliband has rejected a suggestion from the teachers' pay review body to set targets for working hours, which he said would be "arbitrary and artificial".
He was disappointed that the NUT had not signed up but said there was now a "broad and determined coalition" for change.
He rejected the NUT's claims that new senior assistants would be teachers on the cheap. Heads would not use them in place of teachers, he said, as standards would suffer. "What head is going to do wrong by their pupils?"
The NUT has also seized on a line in the agreement that says pupils could be taught in "double-sized" groups to free teachers needing non-contact time.
But Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said the NUT's suggestion that pupils could be taught in groups of 60 was a "red herring". He said:
"Non-contact time has been a constant demand at teacher union conferences since Abraham was born. We have achieved it and that's something we should rejoice in."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "If deploying a teacher with the support of appropriate staff with 60 pupils is the right way forward in schools, then so be it."
* Government committed to cut teachers' overall working hours within four years.
* Teachers guaranteed half day a week away from lessons for planning, preparation and assessment by 2005.
* Contracts to say that teachers and heads should have "appropriate" workloads.
* Teachers to spend at most 38 hours a year covering for absent colleagues by 2004, with further cuts promised.
* Transfer of all non-teaching tasks to support staff by September this year.
* Guaranteed leadership time for managers by September.
* Panel of 12 heads to assess attempts to cut bureaucracy.
* Unions, employers and civil servants to review implementation of agreement monthly.