New deal or no deal?

17th January 2003 at 00:00
MINISTERS' failure to sign up the largest teachers' union to their proposals for reducing teacher workload means the agreement reached this week falls short of the historic new settlement many hoped for.

While the National Union of Teachers is not yet planning active opposition, its campaign will bolster staffroom suspicions that the real aim is to replace qualified teachers with cheaper, less-qualified and easier-to-recruit assistants. This could make it harder for some heads to ease teacher workloads by expanding the role of classroom assistants.

Sensitivity to such innovations is likely to be lower in secondary schools where teaching demands more subject expertise. Extra pairs of hands to support children with learning difficulties, or to preserve free periods by minding the classes of absent teachers while their pupils do set work, will be welcome. So will more clerical and technical support. It is no surprise that the unions accepting the deal are more secondary-focused.

Primary schools, however, now have to create half a day a week non-contact time for all class teachers. That is equivalent to an extra teacher in every nine-teacher school. No wonder, then, that the main primary teachers'

union sought stronger guarantees that this could not simply be achieved by substituting the unqualified for the qualified.

David Miliband's public response was to "trust the headteachers". The integrity of heads is not really what is in question. They, as always, will do the best they can with whatever resources they are given. But the headteacher associations are already saying the extra money is not enough. This is the real question, then. Will schools have the staff and money to reduce workload and the goodwill to try out alternatives? Ministers cannot duck responsibility for ensuring that they do.

The Government has effectively taken control of school funding; the pay, training and supply of teachers; the regulations and conditions under which they work; and what and how children are expected to learn. If these proposals now fail to create a more attractive and sustainable teaching profession once again, the public will hold the Government responsible, not heads or the NUT.

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