Where taking work home is a good thing

27th July 2001 at 01:00
Teachers in Nottingham have won government backing to end the long-hours culture. Nic Barnard reports.

SOMETIMES they work long into the night, these teachers. Or they get up early in the morning to hit the books, working by the eerie light of a flickering computer screen.

The funny thing is, they prefer it that way. Despite the unsociable hours, staff at Greenwood Dale school in Nottingham are taking back control of their lives - working smarter instead of harder.

Workload has become the single most pressing issue in education. Now this inner-city technology college is conducting an experiment that could have huge implications. With a pound;25,000 Department for Trade and Industry grant - and state-of-the-art technology - staff have begun to restore the balance between their work and home lives.

The key is a school intranet, a high-speed, secure network that staff can access anywhere using free laptops - every teacher will have one within two years. It allows them to work on major projects, plan lessons, mark work or access sensitive records from the comfort of their own home.

"I can save hours in travelling time alone," says administrative manager Moira Lees. "At rush hour it can take me more than an hour to get in. If I want to, I can have a couple of hours with my family and start work later on in the evening.

"You do have to be careful that you don't work longer. But because you can work without interruption, you use your time more effectively."

Greenwood Dale was one of only a handful of schools among 180 winners of DTI WorkLife Balance grants. It aims to cut working hours by 10 per cent and believes staff stress levels have dropped by a quarter.

IT consultant John Eary, working with the school under the DTI programme, was surprised how many teachers on the scheme chose to start work at 9pm ("but if that's the most productive time of day for them, then OK", he says). With an outsider's eye he notes that many schools still lag far behind the typical business. Few teachers have their own desk or computer, and few use email.

"You find teachers who put in an awful lot of time but it's counterproductive in terms of their health, well-being and efficiency," he says.

Head Barry Day, a technology evangelist, says teachers will be expected to use email in future, and check regularly for messages. But the key benefit is taking control.

"It's all very well having technology but unless it makes us more efficient and gives us more leisure, we might as well stay with paper," he said.

Deputy head Mike Hamlin adds: "Setting the GCSE course timetables has been considerably easier this year because of the access I've had at home. I can work more single-mindedly instead of doing six jobs at once at school."

The DTI is investing pound;10.5 million in its WorkLife Balance programme over three years. Other grant-winners include the Leicestershire police, Watford FC and the airline easyJet.

The list also includes Brocklewood junior school in Nottingham, Boston Spa comprehensive in Yorkshire and a number of universities including Anglia Polytechnic, Middlesex and Brighton.

Employment relations minister Alan Johnson said a better balance between work and leisure gave workers better quality of life. It also made them more productive and more loyal to their employers. "British workers want a satisfying job but they want it as part of a fulfilling life outside the workplace," he said.

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