Don't trip over falling rolls

10th October 2003 at 01:00
The workload deal is threatened by the NUT's opposition to classroom assistants. But with declining numbers of pupils, there could be a solution Jon Slater reports

Six weeks into a new term and nine months after the National Union of Teachers rejected the workload agreement, relations between the Government and the union remain icy.

Ministers are determined to push ahead with the agreement despite this year's funding problems and have frozen out its opponents.

Meanwhile the NUT, an outcast among its union brethren, is using its time in the wilderness not only to oppose the agreement but to attack the Government on everything from key stage tests to sponsorship in schools.

The agreement aims to relieve teachers of more than 20 tasks, such as collecting dinner money and photocopying, by employing more classroom assistants. A cadre of elite classroom assistants will be trained to take classes.

The NUT is adamantly opposed to assistants taking classes. It sees this as a betrayal of its ideal of an all-graduate profession, something the union fought for decades to achieve.

It fears that the Government, or one of its successors, will use the agreement to cut education spending by substituting cheap assistants for qualified staff.

Ministers see "professional remodelling" as a long overdue reform which will revolutionise the way schools work and reduce the burden on teachers.

When Estelle Morris, then education secretary, launched the Government's proposals back in November 2001, she presented reform as the only way to avoid an ever-increasing teacher shortage.

In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, she questioned whether the supply of teachers could ever meet schools' demand for them. Based on the trends of the time she estimated the demand for teachers would outstrip the supply by 40,000 by 2006.

To prevent a massive shortage, an alternative had to be found - teaching assistants.

In the midst of a recruitment crisis, it was an argument designed to win over sceptics both inside and outside the profession and formed the basis of the agreement signed 14 months later.

But she did not tell the whole story. After years of steady increase, pupil numbers - and hence the need for more teachers - were about to start to fall.

Rolls in both primaries and secondaries will be significantly lower by the end of the decade. Official figures show that the number of pupils in primary schools will fall by 168,000 over the next three years. Under the current funding system where money is allocated on the basis of pupil numbers, that will mean an automatic reduction in the money going to primaries giving heads little choice but to axe teachers' jobs.

The extent of the problem will be revealed in a report by Professor Alan Smithers which was commissioned by the NUT and will be published shortly.

Professor Smithers, a teacher recruitment expert at the Liverpool university centre for education and employment research, calculates that by 2010, the requirement for primary teachers will fall by approximately 15 per cent. The number of secondary teachers needed will increase next year then fall by 12 per cent to 2010 - a loss of 50,000 teaching jobs.

But Professor Smithers suggests that rather than use falling pupil numbers to cut costs, the Government should take advantage of the situation to reduce class sizes and retain teachers who would otherwise lose their jobs.

"It is difficult to free up teachers' time by bringing in assistants. The trouble is that they have to be supervised and it raises all sorts of training and accountability issues," he said.

Instead teachers could be retained to give their colleagues the 10 per cent planning, preparation and assessment time set out in the workload deal.

It seems a neat solution but there are a number of problems both practical and political.

John Howson, a rival recruitment expert, points out that around one in five primary and one in four secondary teachers is set to retire within the next decade.

He says that falling rolls may be more than offset by the number of teachers leaving the profession and warns that unless recruitment improves another teacher shortage may result.

For secondary schools already unable to find teachers for maths, science and languages, this is a real hurdle.

But it is less of a problem at primary level where historically there has been no shortage of recruits.

And it is primary teachers, Professor Smithers argues, who are currently missing out most on the non-contact time the workload deal promises.

Political problems may prove more stubborn. The Government sees a changed role for teaching assistants as a vital next step in the standards agenda.

Schools minister David Miliband hinted at this when he told employers that local authorities and schools should examine whether "the staffing mix you have inherited is the best way to deliver a more personalised education in your schools".

The Government has shown no inclination to address the issue of falling rolls.

Commenting on a drop in the number of primary teachers between January 2002-2003, a Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "It is not surprising that statistics show that the number of primary teachers has dropped when primary pupil numbers are also dropping rapidly."

And little has been heard from most of the unions. During this year's funding crisis, some union leaders seemed to accept that cuts were inevitable in schools with falling rolls.

However, John Bangs, NUT head of education and a candidate to be its next general secretary, describes the potential effects of falling rolls as "extremely alarming" before reiterating the union's opposition to the workload agreement, something he describes as a "method of control".

Although Mr Bangs insists that the NUT is ready to negotiate, relations with the Government have deteriorated to the point where there is precious little of the trust needed to begin talks.

The NUT leadership has at least one eye on the election to find a successor to Doug McAvoy who retires next year. Likewise ministers, hoping the new NUT leader might accept the agreement, see little need to compromise before then as long as the other unions remain on board.

The other unions balk at the idea of being made to look stupid by the NUT winning a new deal after they not only signed but promoted the original workload agreement.

As long as neither side gives any impression of looking for a way to resolve the dispute, parents, heads and teachers have little choice but to prepare themselves for a long period of political point scoring, accompanied by the inevitable threat of industrial action.

But disinterested observers could be excused for asking if some compromise could not be reached. Demographic trends could offer the chance of a compromise that would allow both sides to claim victory.

Why cannot the NUT agree to teaching assistants taking classes - in particular those in secondary shortage subjects - as long as the Government agrees to fund schools at a level which would protect teachers' jobs?

Platform 21, leadership 28

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