Outcry over shorter week;Briefing;International

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Action taken to reduce a shortage of primary teachers is causing anger, Abi Daruvalla reports.

Controversial plans to introduce a four-day school week to solve an acute shortage of teachers in primary schools are causing uproar. The media is awash with angry protests by educational experts and parents.

The proposal put forward by the State Education Association, which represents parents, teachers and governors, would require changes to the law and could not come into force until September 2000 at the earliest.

But an increasing number of schools have begun operating a four-day week on their own initiative for under-eights, who are not required by law to spend as much time in school as older children. This has prompted one irate father to take school governors to court in an attempt to prevent them closing his children's school on alternate Fridays.

The outcome of the case, expected by July 20, could give schools a green light to cut their teaching days unilaterally.

The father, Mr P Wind, has three children at a primary school in Diemen on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Mr Wind claims the school did not properly consult parents before making its decision and failed to take the needs of working parents fully into consideration, and that a shorter school week could reduce the quality of his children's education.

The school governors, however, say they have approval from the parent teachers' association and informed all parents of their decision in April. They deny the quality of education will be affected and stress that schools' function is to provide education not childcare services. They say the nine-day fortnight (from September) is necessary because of a national decision to cut teachers' working week from 38 to 36 hours.

Although Dutch primary schools are closed on Wednesday afternoons, they have the highest number of teaching hours in Europe: 975 a year compared with 800 in the United Kingdom and just 624 in Sweden (see table). The State Education Association wants a four-day week to cut teaching hours to 880.

The association's director Rob Limper admits this is a trend-setting proposal but says it is the best way to solve the problems caused by the shortage of 10,000 teachers, which is leading to classes being split up and children being sent home.

He says the government's alternative - increasing the use of non-professional teaching assistants - would depress educational standards.

Junior education minister Karin Adelmund is not in favour of the four-day week. Spokeswoman Brenda Fidder said: "The trend is for children to spend more, not less, time at school. The number of teaching hours in Holland is high but we have a high standard and we want to keep it that way."

But Professor Han Leune, chairman of the government's education advisory board, said it might be a short-term solution to the teacher shortage.

The four-day school week has caused an outcry from working parents. Some 70 per cent of Dutch families with children at primary schools have two working parents, with the mother working around 20 hours a week.

Education professor Jo Hermanns of Amsterdam University said: "Like it or not, schools do have some social responsibility for looking after children and not just teaching them."

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