Who's taking our children's classes?

28th July 2006 at 01:00
Parents have expressed anger that they have been left in the dark about the impact of the forthcoming reduction in class contact time in primary and secondary schools.

A survey by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has found that most members were unaware of the cut from 23.5 hours to 22.5 hours a week in class contact time, which is being implemented at the start of next session under the teachers' national agreement.

Respondents from the secondary sector were least aware of the impending changes. Those who did know that the move was happening said that small classes would not be allowed to run in their school and, as a result, the options available for vocational courses, Higher and Advanced Higher would be limited.

Knowledge among parents of primary pupils was more extensive, but often linked to direct contact with the school such as membership of the school board. They said that the reduction in class contact time had led to a second class teacher, a specialist teacher, or the headteacher or depute taking their child's class.

Some said that classroom assistants occasionally took the class - a practice that is outlawed in Scottish schools.

Judith Gillespie, development manager of the SPTC, noted that 10 per cent of respondents said assistants sometimes took the class to cover a teacher's "McCrone time" but did not seem to be angry about such a practice, presumably because they were familiar with the assistant.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said if such a practice was being permitted, it was wrong and unacceptable, from the pupils' and teachers' perspectives.

The two-class teacher situation prompted a variety of comments. Some parents were positive, and others more negative: "My daughter only has her class teacher for 2.5 days a week as it is without having it cut. She has a stand-in the rest of the week already and I do not want this increased."

The survey also found that many parents had to rely on their child for explanations. One commented: "Although a 'permanent' supply teacher takes the class, my daughter says that they sometimes do a bit of work but mostly sit and chat."

Another expressed concern that the changes meant headteachers and deputes had to spend more time covering classes and less time on school management:

"Parentsvisitors are now finding it much more difficult to get appointments and, when they do, not for as long as they should be."

The survey found that "ignorance was the overriding theme" when parents were asked what changes were to be introduced in the coming year. Among secondary respondents, 69 per cent did not know what changes there would be.

The 31 per cent who had been told reported that the likely consequences were changes to school hours, changes to the timetable such as a cut in the number of lessons per day from eight to six, anticipated problems with absence cover and providing supervision, distance learning packages to replace small Advanced Higher classes and an increase in the number of bi-level classes in S5 and S6.

Mrs Gillespie said it was ironic that the survey was carried out at the time of the passage through the Scottish Parliament of the parental involvement bill, which was based on encouraging involvement in children's education.

"However, such parental involvement tends to be viewed as working only in one direction, with parents giving support to the school," she said. "There is little understanding that, for involvement to work properly, it has to be a two-way process - schools have to keep parents properly informed.

"Experience has taught us that there are 'parent' issues - bullying, behaviour and enterprise education."

Mrs Gillespie suggested that the teachers' agreement was seen by the educational establishment as nothing to do with parents as it was "only"

about teachers and their pay and conditions. "However, when such matters have a direct effect on who is in front of the class and for how long, then such matters become parent issues," she said.

The survey prompted concerns about the wide variations between schools and authorities over the "replacement activity" for the 2.5 hours a week of non-class contact time, Mrs Gillespie said.

One school was reported to be teaching Scottish country dancing during part of the "McCrone time", she said. "There have to be questions whether these two-and-a-half hours are really going to be filled adequately."

As for the EIS, Mr Smith pointed out that some secondary teachers were not having a de facto or real cut in contact time.

"No one would disagree with the view that parents should be kept informed about relevant matters pertaining to their youngsters' education," he commented. "But so far as secondary is concerned, the maximum number of hours that a teacher teaches does not in general terms have any obvious impact on the experience of the pupils in class."

He was not persuaded it would be thought a natural thing to do for a school to tell parents: "By the way, in the past we were able to timetable the teacher up to 23.5 hours, but this year it will be only 22.5 hours maximum."

Mr Smith continued: "That is not information that most parents would be interested in. They would be interested if it meant some kind of negative impact on the experience of their youngsters, but that could come from a number of sources, including budget cuts."

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said the SPTC was making a "simplistic assumption" that the school should have been advising parents.

"The effects of the cuts are not good news and schools would not advise parents in such circumstances," Mr McGregor said. "It would be for the local authorities to do so.

"A lot of the secondary schools still don't know what the effects of the cuts are going to be - they won't know until they go back in August and see what the final staffing levels are, which is when they fine tune the courses on offer.

"Having said all that, our view is that parents should be made aware of the possible implications of the cuts by the local authorities. At a time when we are trying to improve contact with parents, it is not a particularly good sign if this is the way in which local authorities and parents are going to interact."

Leader 16


The survey

* The SPTC received a 12 per cent response rate - from 178 out of its 1,440 member schools - in April.

This included 144 primaries, of which 20 sent multiple responses from a total of 150 individuals; and 31 secondaries, of which two sent multiple responses from nine individuals; and two special schools, one responding as a primary and the other as a secondary.

* 57 per cent of secondary respondents and 60 per cent of primary school respondents were aware of the impending changes. Of those who were aware, the majority of primary respondents said they had been informed by the school, but secondary respondents said the opposite.

* 36 per cent of secondary respondents said they knew what was happening in their child's school as a result of the reduction in class contact time, compared to 61 per cent of primary respondents.

* The main ways in which "McCrone time" is covered in schools are: second class teacher, specialist teacher, or headteacher or depute takes the class. Also mentioned were: more year group or whole-school activities, children watching more television programmes or videos, and classroom assistant taking the class.

* 69 per cent of secondary responses did not know what changes were taking place in their child's school next year; 86 per cent of primary respondents said the same.

* 2 per cent of primary respondents and 10 per cent of secondary respondents reported changes to the number or frequency of parent-teacher evenings as a result of the cuts in class contact time.

The comments

* "How did this get agreed? It is crazy! Unbelievable! Who else can say that 2.5 hours constitutes half a day of work?"

* "Any cuts in the hours that teachers actually teach can only have a negative effect on pupils."

* "I feel quite annoyed to find out that my daughter will be losing teaching time at school while teachers' salaries still rise."

* "Why can't the report writingplanning etc not be done after school or in the generous holiday period? How much non-teaching time do they want in their 'teaching career'?"

* "Broadly I am in favour of teachers having time to prepare for classes during the working hours so long as the process is well managed and teachers use the 2.5 hours constructively."

What was agreed

* In August 2001, maximum class contact stood at 25 hours in primary, 23.5 in secondary and 22.5 in special. The second stage, from August 2004, took it to 23.5 in primary and secondary. From next month, both sectors will match the special school contact time of 22.5 hours within a 35-hour working week.

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