Two more hours

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Teachers are working harder. They are putting in significantly more hours than they were just two years ago and spending longer in front of their classes according to the survey commissioned by the School Teachers' Review Body (page 1). And this research does not take account of the other official statistics showing that those classes probably contained more pupils than they did two years before.

Teachers' complaints about increasing workloads are once again, then, supported by this survey. Spending more time preparing to teach more lessons to more pupils means teacher effort is being stretched ever thinner. This is the inevitable consequence of successive years in which statutory pay awards and increasing pupil numbers have not been fully funded. The impact of the Chancellor's requirement that salary rises in the public sector be met by "efficiency" savings is reflected in the 3.3 per cent cut in real terms funding per pupil over three years recorded in the most recent figures from the Government.

Schools are certainly achieving the savings; they have little choice. But whether this amounts to greater efficiency is a moot point. True, there has been no reduction in productivity measured by the output of GCSE and A-level grades. But that was to be expected anyway given the increased emphasis on formal qualifications, the increasing proportion of children from middle-class homes and the sharper focus on examination performance created by league tables. The improvements are marginal. Little real impact has been made on the underachievement endemic throughout our system. Instead we have witnessed an apparent explosion in unmet learning difficulties and pupil exclusions as schools have found less time or patience for special cases.

There is room for improvement, too, in literacy, numeracy and subject teaching in primary schooling and signs that any increases in non-contact time for better co-ordination of subject work have only been achieved by even larger class sizes. Less than half the classroom teachers and secondary heads questioned felt they had time to do their job as it should be done; only a third of primary heads shared that confidence.

It is to the enormous credit of teachers, then, that an increase of two hours or so a week of teaching, preparation and marking over the past two years has not apparently reduced their willingness to undertake extra-curricular activities. If anything, that commitment seems to have increased. Secondary teachers devote an average of around one and a half hours of their 50-hour week to games coaching, rehearsing for drama or musical productions and organising clubs; figures that put into perspective the ritual complaints about schools' lack of support for sport and the arts.

Findings such as these are bound to increase the pressure from teacher unions on the review body to propose statutory staffing standards. In its 1993 report the STRB itself threatened to recommend statutory non-teaching time if primary teachers' negligible allocation did not improve over the next year or so. As always, it was reluctant to interfere with local discretion. The next two years saw a minimal improvement in non-contact time in primary schools, a worsening in secondary and no action by the review body. It knows that statutory non-contact time would be pointless unless there were also maximum class sizes, and that in turn means the Government must provide sufficient money to pay for extra teachers.

When it considered teachers' workloads in its 1996 report, the STRB merely noted the Government's intention that staffing levels should rise to meet the increase in pupil numbers this year. And instead of comparing the likelihood of that happening to a British athlete's chances of winning Olympic gold, given the funding available, it fell back on the vacuous hope that heads and governors would treat "effective management of teachers' workloads" as a priority.

In the light of the previous non-contact time imperative, some people may have taken that to mean that school managers should strive to protect, or improve, class sizes and preparation time. It could equally well have meant that teachers should be made to work two hours longer. But more likely it was empty rhetoric to obscure the review body's impotence in the face of Government refusal to will the means as well as the ends.

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