Mr Gradgrind had it so easy;Opinion

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
The need for a radical overhaul of our Victorian school-day structure is overwhelming, argues principal Anita Higham.

The debate concerning the structure of the school academic year both for students and teachers urgently needs developing further. David Bell in his article "Get away from .... the past" (TES, March 20) and Margaret Hodge in her recently publicised arguments, are both introducing pressing and radically important issues.

The current style and structure of the teachers' contractual working year represents a nineteenth century tool tackling a late 20th century set of needs and issues - the current education quart will not fit into its pint pot.

Teachers and schools have a hugely significant job to do. However, there will be no great change in students' achievement levels while the style and structure of schools and their working year remain essentially that designed for the sons of the professional classes in mid-Victorian England. There will be no great attraction to the very able and dynamically visionary graduates to become teachers, while the teachers' working year remains 150 years out of date.

How long can we afford to continue to collude with an anachronistic system which is increasingly making unreasonable and undeliverable demands on teachers?

Their working weeks and year include essential requirements which cannot be undertaken in term-time on the dining room table, night after night until midnight. Teachers have a right to a properly balanced working week and year, to term-time evenings and weekends they can spend with their families, friends and pursue other activities and entertainment. The three terms are bursting at the seams such that quality work cannot be achieved within them. Teachers need time at work so that they can provide the best teaching for their pupils.

I propose that teachers be at their place of work for 225 days each year (excluding weekends, public holidays and periods of annual leave). They should have a right to 27 days plus eight public holidays (ie seven weeks) of annual leave - taken in agreed blocks of time dispersed between pupil-contact terms and 35 professional days, when the work done is not directly with children, each year.

Local flexibility within these parameters would be essential.

The teachers' working year would be composed of 38 pupil-contact teachinglearning weeks (190 days as at present) divided into two terms of seven weeks and three terms of eight weeks, together with seven professional weeks. These would require them to be at their place of work, but not engaged in direct student contact. These seven professional weeks would be distributed, together with the seven weeks of leave, between the five teaching terms.

Gone would be the days when meetings with parents, curriculum planning and review, target-setting, curriculum development, learning resources design, working across phase and across disciplines and 50 other activities happened either during the day, or with a supply teacher covering the teachers' classes, or at the end of six hours of teaching, or during the evening and late into the night. Victorian teachers -and even 1950s and 1960s teachers - did not work in the way the nation requires its teachers today to work.

The average teacher's working week should be containable within 37 hours at their place of work, for 45 weeks each year. A working day, as directed by the head, could be from 8am to 5pm (Friday 4.30pm). Student contact time would be maximum of four-and-a-half hours daily; one hour for lunch; 30 minutes for breaks; three hours for markingassessmentlesson preparation administration. Local flexibility within the 37 hours, however, would be essential and will become increasingly so.

For post holders with management responsibilities, student contact hours (as now) would be fewer, thereby allowing for the daily management of urgent or emergency issues, involving students, parents, colleagues and others. Teachers who typically have less formal marking, would take extra curricular activities during part of the three hours used by other colleagues.

The school's Learning Centre would be open until 6pm daily, managed by those on different contracts alongside the school's day nursery, which would provide quality childcare from 8 am to 6pm daily. (Both these currently obtain at Banbury School.) The academic and financial years would be concurrent (April to March). Public exams would be held in late February to March, with results preceding university applications - surely of interest to admissions tutors.

Why do we teachers not use our enormous brain power to solve a problem which is sending too many away from one of the most exciting, fascinating and challenging of jobs?

Anita Higham, is principal of Banbury School, Oxfordshire

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