What do they mean by a 35-hour week?

4th May 2001 at 01:00
once knew a journalist who took a strict interpretation of an old Fleet Street union agreement that his working week should be 35 hours. If on a story that involved an overnight stay, he viewed himself as being exclusively engaged in work from the moment he left home. That he might sit on a train reading a cheap novel, sleep for eight hours in his hotel bed, and eat a leisurely breakfast was, in his view, beside the point. The time had been expended for the employer's convenience when he might have used it in other ways. The result was that he frequently completed his working week by Tuesday evening and, with an apparently clear conscience, took the rest of the week off.

Work is hard to define. The compilers of the census require us to take an average of the hours worked in the previous four weeks. Since these included the Easter holidays, I fear teachers will be disadvantaged when the results are published. But as a journalist, I find the form almost impossible to complete satisfactorily. Am I working when I read newspapers? Should I stop my watch when I turn to the sports pages or the chess puzzle?

Does lunch with the proprietor of the New Statesman count as work? Or attending a reception held by the Fabian Society? (If you don't think the last could possibly be work, imagine a room full of people who want to discuss the Third Way.) How then are teachers to reckon the 35-hour working week they are now demanding?

In one sense, teachers' work is easy to define. Nobody denies that time in the classroom is work, and very hard work at that. Yet much of the public (including many tabloid newspaper columnists) persist in believing that is the end of it. Already, I hear smart-alecs joking that teachers' unions are the first to campaign for a rise in their members' hours.

The factory-line principles of Fordism are so ingraied in our culture that people cannot accept anything as work unless it is directly"on-task". Thus, barristers are thought to be working only when they are in court, actors only when they are on stage and doctors only when they have their ears to the stethoscope. I was a Sunday newspaper journalist for 25 years; I was sometimes brought almost to violence by those who believed that I only worked on Saturdays.

What is new is the trend towards more flexible hours in society generally.

We should not exaggerate this: probably the majority of the working population, even now, clocks on and off, working to rigidly fixed hours; the call centre is as regimented as the traditional factory. But, particularly in white-collar occupations, people increasingly have the freedom to choose their own working hours and occasionally to work from home.

Teachers, by contrast, are constrained not only by timetables, but by school holidays; like the Lancastrian cotton workers of old with their "wakes weeks", they all have to go away together when the factory shuts down. And, while others enjoy greater flexibility, teachers have gone in the opposite direction, thanks to the introduction in the late 1980s of "directed time", and to the exponential growth in after-school meetings.

So I do not blame them for the 35-hour week campaign. Treat people like proletarians, and they will respond like proletarians. I think it sad, however, that we have come to this. The British work notoriously long hours, but there is evidence that they do so, not under duress but out of enjoyment of their work, which they find more peaceful and less stressful than home (no small children, no washing-up). But successive governments have taken all the joy out of teaching, and now they are reaping the whirlwind.

Peter Wilby is editor of the 'New Statesman'

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