Nothing mundane about routine tasks

9th January 2004 at 00:00
In public, of course, we are all sticking to the new party line. Work-life balance and workforce remodelling are flavours of the month, and woe betide any unfortunate who challenges the consensus. Scottish teachers and their 35-hour week have got the Government on the run, so let's join the chase.

Our justifiable anger about league tables has been driven, not only by the conviction that they are grossly unfair, but also by the perception that they do not do justice to all the other activities on which schools pride themselves. Now we appear to be saying that participating in such wholesome activities throws our work-life balance out of kilter. Shouldn't there be an element of personal preference in all this?

In one of Cold Feet's most memorable scenes, Jenny is dropped by her latest flame in a stream of cliches about finding oneself and the need for "more space". Jenny turns on the hapless lothario, enquiring where all this supposed space was and what the hell he was going to do with it when he found it. Teachers' work-life balance seems to include loads more time for DIY, shopping, other domestic chores, telly and generally "chilling out".

Well, no thank you.

Watching the school team you are coaching, going to a school concert, enjoying the buzz of a school production, being part of the camaraderie of an overseas school trip. All these things make teaching a fulfilling career, although it is true that teachers used to be made to feel guilty if they did not participate in these out-of-school activities. Now it's the other way round. Young teachers are made to feel they are letting the side down when they throw themselves into the rich extracurricular life that good schools enjoy. The older brigade still running teams, directing plays and conducting choirs are treated with something approaching contempt. Get a life, we are told.

Apparently we are also transforming the workforce, supposedly to enable teachers to spend more time on their teaching and thus raise standards. The staffroom awkward squad love it. Twenty-four routine tasks, as they are now called, are no longer being done by teachers, no matter how ludicrous the consequences. Taking minutes at meetings? Employ a clerk. Want to put up a display of pupils' work to enliven the atmosphere of your classroom? Wait until the school's display technician is available. A riot in the exam hall? Leave it to the invigilators recruited from heaven knows where while the released teachers nobly get on with important "developmental work" elsewhere.

A further consequence is already emerging. The office staff are, not surprisingly, pointing out that, as highly trained professionals, they need to be freed from all these unloved routine tasks in order to allow them enough time to attend to their "real" work; the caretaker is wondering whether all that time clearing up puke is the best use of his skills; the nurse is unhappy about dealing with nosebleeds when her real expertise is in mental health; and the groundsman no longer regards litter as his responsibility. If teachers can play that game, then so can everybody else.

For years we tried to set our charges a good example by at least pretending that everybody's role was important. You remember all that noble stuff about not asking people to do things that we were not prepared to do ourselves? A few deluded souls actually believed it and put it into practice. Now the hierarchy of staff and tasks has been unmistakably spelt out for us and the poor unfortunates at the bottom are the ones doing the routine tasks. Get a life? Give us a break.

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E high school, Harrogate

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