GENERAL elections are a bit like Christmas. They can transform a misanthropic politician into your most generous uncle. It is therefore just possible that there may be some progress on the vexed question of teachers' hours before we play noughts and crosses in the polling station. But some healthy scepticism is called for. The united front mounted by the unions has evidently concentrated the minds of Labour politicians. They do not want children sent home and parents inconvenienced in the run-up to an election.
But if there really has been a softening of attitudes let us hope it stems at least in part from some empathy with teachers' predicament. Many are suffering, as surveys of stress levels confirm. David Blunkett ought to know this because he receives the same kind of letters on teacher workload that stream into The TES each week.
Some teachers relieve their frustrations by itemising all the Government initiatives that make their life impossible. Needless to say, these are the longest letters. The Govrnment may have driven up exam results and increased education spending but many teachers feel that their job has become harder since 1997. The promised reductions in administrivia have not materialised and teachers are spending more time planning lessons and attending to children's special needs.
No bad thing perhaps. But the consequence is a 51 to 53-hour week for teachers in term-time and a 60-hour week for many heads. This is unacceptable when Scots teachers' new contract will require them to work only 35 hours a week. Matching that for English and Welsh teachers may not be feasible immediately. However, even their employers are agreed that their current contract - which says they should work 1,265 hours a year, plus "such additional hours" as may be needed to discharge their professional duties - is too open-ended.
No one wants teachers to be clock-watchers but, as their colleagues in France, Germany and now Scotland have demonstrated, long hours are not a prerequisite of professionalism.