Right on time
It was having his car broken into that made headteacher Peter Hall-Jones realise he had to give his staff more time in school for planning and preparation.
The connection might not seem obvious, but for the head of Little London primary school, Leeds, a tough inner-city school in one of the poorest wards in Britain, the forced entry of his car was a moment of revelation.
He had reported the incident to the police. "When the officer came along," says Mr Hall-Jones, "he told me he would write a report, but not straight away because he was about to go off-duty. I thought, 'Hang on. Off-duty is the very time when my teachers write their reports. They do an integral part of their job outside their job.'" That was two years ago, when Mr Hall-Jones believed the amount of paperwork required of teachers was getting out of hand and threatening to undermine his school's achievements. His staff were teaching pupils from extremely impoverished backgrounds, many of them with baseline assessments 50 per cent below the Leeds average. But they were committed to turning Little London, victim of a serious arson attack in 1995, into a successful school.
Mr Hall-Jones believed he had to relieve the pressure on his staff, to make some of their off-duty time, particularly over the weekend, truly off-duty. The challenge was to give teachers planning and preparation time in school hours that was long enough to be meaningful to them, without disadvantaging the pupils.
It has taken two years of trial and error but, since last September, Little London teachers have been spending nearly two hours every Friday afternoon planning and preparing rather than teaching.
While staff have their heads in paperwork, catching up on individual pupil target-setting, gathering resources for the coming week or consulting subject co-ordinators, pupils are enjoying an enriched curriculum. Years 5 and 6 are taken swimming by Jenny Herron, the deputy head. Years 3 and 4 are either engaged in sports training with Actio Sport, a group of professional coaches funded through the social regeneration budget, or being taken for singing by a specialist, outside teacher. Years 1 and 2 have a half-hour of singing, then circle time, in which they play games that contribute to personal and social education, or peer reading. These activities are supervised by non-teaching assistants; reception children are taken by a supply teacher.
Pat Daly, Little London's Year 6 teacher and key stage 2 co-ordinator, says: "This is some recognition that we do deserve to have a life. There are meetings almost every day after school, and I see teachers staggering out at 5.30pm with boxes of books still to be marked. I mark 60 to 90 books every day. I am also a leading maths teacher. On Monday morning three members of staff from other schools will be coming in to observe a maths lesson. So I am spending this Friday planning."
Masarrat Khan, a Year 5 teacher, says: "When I tell other teachers I have Friday afternoon non-contact time for my planning, they are green with envy. It doesn't mean I won't be having to work on Sunday afternoon, but it reduces the amount of time I will be preparing at home. It is relieving the stress at the end of the week, and we are lucky to have a head that sees the need. I can leave for the weekend with some of my planning in place for Monday. That is enormously beneficial."
The afternoon does not always go to plan. The swimming bus might not turn up, the singing teacher might be sick. But teachers are grateful that a system is in place.
Mr Hall-Jones says: "Quality planning produces quality teaching, but you have to give teachers the time to do it. Many heads hate themselves for the pressure they have to put on staff. I understand that many government initiatives are intended to help teachers, but the sheer quantity is stressful.
"It's like a clawhammer. Is it a lever for getting out a rusty nail, or a hammer to hammer it in further? I might say, 'This initiative is a lever', but to my staff it might look like a hammer. Friday at Little London provides at least some relief from the hammering."