Too strapped to lighten our workload

31st October 2008 at 00:00
It's a lack of money that will scupper the workforce deal, not a failure of will

The workforce agreement has hit the headlines again, and for all the wrong reasons. Are schools fully implementing it; what is the impact on heads' workload; and how are schools going to cope with covering lessons? It seems to me that all this misses the key point; there is simply not enough funding to make it work in practice.

I'm sure the profession believes the agreement was worthwhile, but I think it is often forgotten that the agreement was not primarily about reducing teachers' workload per se, but about refocusing the work they do on teaching and assessment.

Planning, preparation and assessment time was guaranteed at a minimum of 10 per cent of teaching time, and various administrative tasks not requiring the skills of a teacher were banned. The final piece of the jigsaw was a reduction in the cover a teacher was expected to provide, to a maximum of 38 hours in a year.

Some of this was good sense and some wasn't. Particularly effective was stopping teachers invigilating exams so that they could use this time for teaching-focused tasks. But the idea that a complex teaching job can be carried out without a degree of administration is simply ridiculous. There is no comparable profession that doesn't require some administrative work to be undertaken by its staff.

Sometimes the teacher is the most obvious person to carry out this work and to do it differently is less effective. School trips are a case in point. I always administer them myself. I know exactly who is going, how much has been paid and what still needs collecting. I've tried to do this differently, but it didn't work effectively and took me more time, so I reverted to what worked best. As far as I'm aware, most staff at Penyrheol do the admin for their trips for the same reason, in spite of the workforce agreement. As a profession, we should always aim to do things in the most sensible way, rather than the way bureaucrats say we should.

Classroom cover is another area where common sense must prevail. Many teachers at my school will do little or none this year, and that's a good thing for them. Others will do some because they have gaps in their timetables, and because some of our staff will be absent, making cover a necessity. Teachers covering for absent colleagues is a good thing for the pupils. Any competent staff member is likely to cover a lesson more effectively than a supply teacher, and it makes better economic sense too. If schools are forced to abolish cover, there will be significant extra costs and pupils' experience will deteriorate.

The workforce deal went hand in hand with workforce remodelling and the introduction of teaching and learning responsibilities. Schools were expected to restructure their staff to meet the needs of this new era.

At Penyrheol, we set out a structure that included significant extra roles for associate staff. We aimed to appoint two cover supervisors and a pastoral assistant for each year group to replace assistant heads of year. These pastoral assistants would undertake the bulk of the administration required to run a year group and also be available throughout the day to deal with any pupil or parent issues that cropped up.

The problem was that paying for these positions relied upon big increases in the money available for implementing the agreement. But what actually happened was quite different. Funding came in over a period of some four years; small at first, then substantial, but never remotely sufficient to pay for the kind of remodelling that was needed. Almost all the money we've received has had to be spent on administrative hours and exam invigilation costs to ensure teachers can focus on teaching. And for the past three years our funding has actually been reduced because it is related to the size of the school and our pupil roll, as elsewhere in Wales, is falling. Last summer, when we decided we would appoint a second pastoral assistant, we had to fund this by cutting a cover supervisor.

The problem is simple: to fund the associate staff structure we would like, and facilitate school improvement, would cost more than Pounds 100,000. Our workforce funding stands at less than Pounds 83,000, and almost all of that is already committed to paying administration and invigilation costs. There simply isn't enough money to make the ideal a reality.

All of us in the profession should be returning to the battle for more funds if we expect to see the agreement properly implemented. It's no good saying that schools have had long enough to put the reforms into place. Welsh schools have done their best to implement the agreement, but there's only so far you can go when the cash has dried up.

Alan Tootill Head of Penyrheol Comprehensive School, Swansea.

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