The new class - less society

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Changes to primary teachers' working hours have brought mixed blessings.

Staff welcome time without pupils, but some worry that arrangements for cover will became a worse managerial nightmare. Those involved talk to Douglas Blane

Once again, teachers expecting their contracts to be honoured are being castigated for lack of professionalism, with newspapers reporting that primary staff were threatening a weekly walk-out, and that some were using their non-contact time to go shopping and play golf.

"It makes me furious," says one Aberdeenshire infant teacher.

"They are saying we already enjoy a 35-hour week, and now we can just walk out of school when we feel like it. I'd like to strangle these journalists."

The trouble began when the Educational Institute of Scotland advised its members that the 1.5 hours a week of non-contact time, as specified in the national teachers' agreement, was not an optional extra to be dispensed at management's discretion.

The EIS issued advice in its newsletter, saying: "If (the non-class contact time) has not been delivered by pm on a Friday, then the teacher is entitled to indicate they will be taking the time at 1.30pm that day and alternative arrangements will be required for supervision of their class."

With teachers entitled to sign out of school in their free time, headteachers responded that they might have to send children home from school early.

Willie Hart, the EIS representative for Glasgow, argues: "Our advice was that teachers who hadn't received their non-contact time by the end of the week should indicate that they would be unavailable for class, and alternative arrangements for supervision would need to be made.

"We did not advise anyone to just walk out of school. That is spin and confusion."

That confusion arose, he says, because the national agreement specifies that all tasks that do not require a teacher to be on school premises can be done "at a time and place of the teacher's choosing", providing the school management is notified.

"So, if teachers haven't had their time by the end of the week, then contractually they would be entitled to leave," says Mr Hart. "But nobody is saying they should just walk out - and teachers wouldn't do that anyway."

The EIS has had to take a firm line on non-contact time, he says, because "there wasn't the understanding there should have been" that this provision is a contractual entitlement.

"(Non-contact time) is not made available on a grace-and-favour basis, or only when things are going well," he said.

"If there aren't enough teachers to deliver it, that should have been sorted out by the education authorities and the Scottish Executive.

"They have had three years to prepare, during which time we have been pointing out the likely staffing difficulties.

"While most acute in Glasgow, these difficulties exist around the country."

The EIS now says that at a national level there is "not a major problem in most areas" resulting from non-class contact time.

An EIS spokesman said: "The difficulties in Glasgow have been the most serious, although they are more to do with supply shortages than anything else.

"The difficulties there seem to be settling down now also."

Nevertheless, while the clouds may have cleared for the time being, there remain signs of some stormy weather ahead, and there is widespread worry among teachers and school managers that the annual rounds of winter colds and flu could blow the agreement off course.

Noa-5 'We manage for supply cover at the moment, but some mornings many phone calls have to be made. If cover can't be found when staff start coming down with flu, I wouldn't like to predict how teachers will respond'

Primary 7 teacher Fife

Primary 7 teacher

Large primary school

City of Edinburgh

"I get my non-contact time in one chunk, which is brilliant. You can get so much done. I use it for work I would have done in my own time: reading new material, looking at resources, developing the school website.

"It's also useful for talking to classroom assistants, rather than just grabbing a quick 10 minutes before 9 o'clock.

"Because of the way our head has organised it, stage partners can get together to share information or look at resources.

"An art and a PE specialist take our classes for one period, then the PE teacher takes the kids to art, or the art teacher takes them to PE. It doesn't involve us at all.

"You have to be careful with kids moving around without their class teacher. Specialists won't know who's off, so we make sure the register goes with them.

"I have not had management making demands on my time. I haven't left the premises yet, but our head is happy that we can, provided we tell the office.

"There was one instance of an event planned during my non-contact time. I asked the head about getting the time back, but was told it doesn't work that way: if you don't get it, it's gone."

Infant teacher

Medium-size primary school Aberdeenshire

"Our head told us we could leave school at 2.30pm - when the kids go home - if we wanted to. I did it once and was told, very nicely, that I should let them know in case there was a fire. I've never done it since.

"I'd rather be on the premises where you have everything you need.

"I use the time for all sorts of things: preparing work, marking, forward planning, assessments, all kinds of paperwork. It's essential, but I could do with twice as much time; we have so much paperwork nowadays.

"I work from 2.30pm right through to 5pm, and even then they have to throw me out because they want to lock up the school.

"We have specialists who come in to release teachers for their non-contact time. But one of them is always off. The management is already having a terrible time, I hear, often having to phone 20 or 30 people to get supply cover if someone is off sick.

Primary 5 teacher

Medium-size primary school Highland

"I get the whole one-and-a-half hours first thing on a Wednesday morning, which is great. Your brain is alert and you get so much work done: preparation, correction, forward planning. I have a new stage this year and it lets me plan much further ahead.

"Colleagues in other schools are getting the time in three half-hour blocks, which wouldn't be anything like as useful.

"Another benefit is that our school provides the time by using a teacher to take over environmental studies and social subjects. It's an immense area and she has total responsibility for planning, assessment and delivering the curriculum, which takes a bit of stress away from us.

"I take the time in school, where I have access to all the resources I need. But there's no problem in going out if we let them know, and it's good to have that option.

"People I'm talking to have all been getting their non-contact time, but I don't know how long it will stay like that. In Highland it is often difficult to get staff to cover, and we have been told that if we don't get our non-contact time one week for any reason, then it's gone."

Primary 7 teacher

Large primary school


"Each stage was asked what specialists we'd benefit from. My stage partner and I asked for religious and moral education and mental maths, and the school management has come up with the goods.

"I use the time to look at what's available in continuing professional development and resources, and for planning.

"I also take a cross-country running group out for half an hour of my time, but that's my choice.

"(The privilege of) being allowed to leave the building is rotated and hasn't come my way yet. It will be good because you can use it to locate and visit outdoor classrooms, museums and art galleries.

"We manage for supply cover at the moment, but some mornings many phone calls have to be made. If cover can't be found for non-contact time when teachers start coming down with flu, I wouldn't like to predict how teachers will respond.

"You have to be very organised with specialists coming in, but it's a good thing for pupils in upper primary. It gets them used to having more teachers and eases the transition to secondary school.

"So far, the non-contact time is working well here, but it is quite hard for management to organise. Two and a half hours next year will be very difficult.

"Support for learning teacher

Large primary school


"Our teachers get the time in three 45-minute blocks, provided by specialists in music, PE and art. Nobody leaves the premises that I know of and I certainly prefer to be in school so that I can discuss things with colleagues if I want.

"The class teachers at our school got the non-contact time before August, but support for learning teachers didn't, so this is an improvement for us and helps us to do a lot of the admin, planning of reviews and writing letters to parents.

"I wouldn't say non-contact time has made teaching more relaxed, but it does help us do the job more effectively.

"The age profile of teachers here is skewed towards the older ones and we have a lot of teachers for whom retirement is not far away. That's going to cause big problems in years to come.

"The supply situation is not great here and getting cover for teachers who are off sick can be very difficult. It can be done at the moment, but I'm not sure what's going to happen when winter comes and the flu comes with it."

Teacher of music and PSE

Medium-size primary school

Glasgow City

"I use the non-contact time for preparation and correction. For primary teachers it is nice to get a break from constant teaching.

"Teachers here get the time in one block. You can leave the premises, but I don't know anybody who does.

"The newspapers were saying that teachers have been leaving school during the day to play golf and go running. That's just crap.

"The relationship between the class teacher and the teacher providing cover is very important. We have to talk all the time, to share information on teaching and on behaviour problems.

"Non-contact time is a managerial nightmare, according to our headteacher, and when you start getting multiple absences in January and February it will be much worse.

"If it does become a cover issue, it's because Glasgow hasn't provided enough teachers. We have been trying to get them to increase the supply pool for years. A lot of teachers are now leaving Glasgow and going to other areas.

"The 35-hour week is choc-a-block, with very little flexibility anywhere.

There's this notion that non-contact time is some sort of gift handed down to us. It's not and we need to stop thinking that it is."@Sans-rr-solid = Primary 5 Teacher

Medium-size primary school

Glasgow City

"Cover for non-contact time in our school is provided by two principal teachers, one of whom was appointed this session. We don't have the luxury of visiting specialists, which would be wonderful.

"The system is stretched very tightly at the moment. It is teetering and a great deal will depend on the health of teachers, who traditionally come to work even when they're dying on their feet. If it's a really bad winter I can see a meltdown in some places because of headteachers' attitudes.

"Schools where teachers would be entitled to take their time at the end of the week also tend to be schools where teachers are intimidated by the head and would be reluctant to do it.

"So there will be schools where staff lose their time, complain and complain, but don't actually do anything about it. I know some headteachers have been taking advantage, but with the help of the union this can often be sorted out reasonably amicably."

Principal teacher

Medium-size primary school

Glasgow City

"Supply teachers are virtually non-existent in Glasgow. That's not a new problem and the authorities should have done something long before it hit the headlines.

"We've a specialist music teacher for half the non-contact time and an assembly for the rest.

"Primary teachers have fought hard for parity with secondary teachers, so managers and teachers should be doing their best to make it work.

"There are problems in schools already and I've no doubt that for management the whole thing is a pain in the neck. But stress levels in schools have never been higher. This helps teachers do their jobs in a more thorough way, without skimming everything.

"Primary teachers tend to have this guilt complex because we have the same children for a year and develop a strong pastoral bond. But it's up to us to make sure we get the time because everybody in a school will benefit.

"The biggest problem is the breadth of the curriculum, which means you don't have time to do anything well. It has taken all the fun out of the job.

"We have the choice to leave school. If I introduced a new reading scheme, for instance, I could visit other schools to help me to choose."

Ronnie Smith

General Secretary

Educational Institute of Scotland

"The overall picture is very positive in terms of the implementation of this part of the teachers' pay and conditions agreement.

"The main challenge facing schools is to secure an adequate supply of substitute teachers to ensure classes are taught when either the class teacher or specialist teacher is unavailable for any reason. In a few cases, there appears to be an assumption that either the class teacher should disregard the maximum contact limit or that headteachers should set aside their management work to fill the gap left by an absent colleague.

"The Education Institute of Scotland does not accept that the agreement can be set aside in this way, or that the activity undertaken in non-contact time should be treated as a less valuable or dispensable part of the teacher's work.

"We are committed to respecting the agreement and expect no less from the co-signatories to it."

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