Give us the staffing to do the job well

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Authorities must not skimp on the agreement to cut class contact time in primaries, says May Ferries

The first question to ask about the reduction in primary class contact time is, is it a good thing? Yes, yes, yes - and for five reasons. First, on principle, it's important to value primary and secondary education equally.

One long overdue method of doing this is to equalise conditions of service for teachers in both sectors.

Second, a condition of the 2001 teachers' agreement is that the use of 136.5 hours of collegiate time must be agreed by teachers in every school.

This is designed to address teacher workload and improve professional relationships.

Third, pupils benefit from working with more than one teacher, which develops their independence.

Fourth, teachers benefit from teaching different stages in the same curricular area, giving them practical insights into how learning develops, thus developing themselves. They can also focus on curricular areas they have particular interest and expertise in, which is also professionally rewarding. They can organise their workload more efficiently at a time and place of their choosing.

Fifth, such new teaching arrangements can help take forward school development plan priorities.

The second question is: why are all primary teachers not dancing in the streets?

First, the Scottish Executive Education Department has not provided enough additional funding to make it work. Its macro-calculation does not translate to one and a half hours for each teacher in every school in Scotland.

Second, some local authorities did not plan properly for the introduction of the reduction, both in ensuring adequate staff were in place timeously and in preparing headteachers for implementation in individual schools.

Third, some headteachers who should have been empowered to lead this change enthusiastically have been let down badly and left to clear up the mess, often with reductions in school management time, which was already scarce.

Fourth, class teachers are used to having their own class all day every day for the whole curriculum, with the huge burden of planning, assessment, reporting which that entails. Many are sceptical that arrangements will be delivered where 1.5 hours of that total responsibility will be taken over by a colleague for the whole session, which is what the national agreement says.

Fifth, everyone in school is worried that the arrangements will collapse as soon as staff absence occurs and the result will be that primary teachers'

new contract will not be honoured.

So, the third question: what needs to be done? First, the Scottish Executive and local authorities have to recognise publicly that this new arrangement is a contractual obligation and a key part of the national agreement which must be honoured for every teacher, every week.

Second, primary heads have to ensure that this improvement in conditions of service for class teachers is not delivered by an increase in their workload. Models of delivery where heads take whole-school assemblies are not good curriculum practice. How can personal and social development, along with citizenship, be properly assessed with a class size of 100 or more? Adequate numbers of additional teachers must be provided to honour the agreement.

Third, headteachers must stop covering absences indefinitely from existing school staff. For years we have thought this was the only choice. This has been a huge error of professional judgment. It has let the Executive and local authorities off the hook and not enough new teachers are being trained to deliver the service. We have colluded in perpetuating this shortage. Parents are largely unaware of this problem because children are never sent home. Such "solutions" would never be tolerated by secondary colleagues, where the cover burden is shared. It is unthinkable that a secondary head would cover all day for even one day, never mind a week or more.

It's time we stood up publicly for primary children to receive the education that the full staffing standard delivers. We must involve parents in holding elected representatives to account for this failure to maintain staffing standards. If we don't, no one else will. This lack of cover is much worse in deprived areas where some cover teachers choose not to work.

These are the pupils who most need their education properly maintained.

Fourth, primary teachers must not be persuaded to "give up" their non-contact time as if it was disposable. This is their contract now, not an optional extra.

Fifth, where the non-contact time cannot be delivered because of uncovered absence, the authorities will have to authorise early closures on Friday afternoons, intimated to parents in advance.

To end on a positive note, I have been delighted to see teachers working on forward plans this past couple of weeks during the school day. Some have taken the option of leaving the building. Wherever the work is done, the forward plans will be delivered on the agreed submission date and hopefully teachers have enjoyed reclaiming their weekends.

I have seen an upper school teacher experience the joys and frustrations of working with younger children. I have heard extremely professional and well thought out points made in the discussion that led to our school working time agreement. I have seen a growing number of teachers write issues on our agenda for the next staff meeting which is on our staffroom wall, so that issues arising in normal break-time discussion are not forgotten or left to fester. I have seen teachers begin to take on the responsibility of chairing and minuting staff meetings.

Teachers have always worked in stage teams informally, but now time is built into collegiate hours for this vital work. All of these are examples of improved professionalism and collegiality. This cannot last if the agreement is not honoured on non-contact time.

May Ferries is acting headteacher of Victoria primary in Glasgow.

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