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Time to take the cue from Europe?

Teachers' responsibilities vary widely on the continent, but, William Stewart asks, which model works best?

If reforms proposed last week become a reality, the role of the teacher in England and Wales will be barely recognisable from what it was less than three years ago. The school workforce agreement, signed in January 2003, has already relieved teachers of more than 20 administrative tasks, limited the cover they can be asked to do, and from September will guarantee them half a day each week for planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time.

Now, a group including the Government, employers and four teacher unions has proposed that teachers be exempt from attending assemblies, taking registration and a range of activities not directly connected to teaching.

More controversially, they could cease to be responsible for providing general guidance and advice to pupils on social or career matters. That may seem an alien, though perhaps welcome, concept for teachers used to a role described by Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, Britain's second-largest teaching union, as child-minder, social worker and crowd controller.

But only 26 miles across the English Channel, it is a long-accepted reality. In the French education system, the teacher's role is focused completely on teaching lessons, to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

According to Martin Romer, general secretary of the European Trade Union Committee for Education, this model is similar to those in Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal. By contrast, in Scandinavian countries - and, to a lesser extent, in Germany and the Netherlands - teachers have a wider range of duties and take a more "holistic" approach.

In France, secondary education is characterised by "absent" teachers who, unless they are form tutors, need be on school premises only for lessons and staff meetings. A senior member of the non-teaching staff, a conseiller principal d'education (principal educational adviser) is responsible for the smooth running of the school.

The conseillers act as a link between teachers and non-teaching staff and are responsible for school-parent relations. They monitor pupils' progress, punctuality, attendance, and take their sick notes. They are also a starting point for dealing with pupils' problems and help to set up remedial teaching systems and school clubs. Education assistants help with the integration of disabled pupils, computers and class and school projects. Other staff known as pions - often university students - work as supervisors and help to keep order during breaks and generally around the school.

Teachers in Italy do not have a pastoral role. Their hours are 8am to 1pm, but in recent years extra time for meetings and training has been written into their contracts, so two afternoons a week are now likely to be spent in school.

They have little administrative work, and even small schools employ teams of secretaries. There are no assemblies, and supervision at break time is provided by bidellos, a cross between school caretakers and lunchtime supervisors. Given their high numbers, it would not be untypical to find two or three bidellos standing at the entrance to a school, seemingly with very little to do. This can be a source of irritation to teachers, who can be paid as little as Pounds 15,000 a year after 20 years' service.

Low wages allow the employment of more teachers, which has led to a pupil-teacher ratio that is one of the most favourable in Europe. In 2003-04, the figure was nearly 10 to one. There are three teachers for every two classes, so many have roles such as working with children with special needs or carrying out tasks which in England would often be done by teaching assistants.

As civil servants, teachers benefit from what is essentially a job for life. Their wages may be too low to bring up a family on, but are not dissimilar to those of other public-sector workers in Italy.

In Germany, teachers enjoy many of the same benefits as their Italian counterparts. After three years, they have civil servant status. As such, they cannot be made redundant. Their hours are longer than those in Italy but shorter than those in England.

But, unlike the Italians, they get good pay and conditions. A newly qualified teacher in a grammar school could expect to start at around pound;25,000a year. From that, they must contribute towards a good pension scheme, but a health insurance scheme is largely free. Also, as they have a job for life, they do not have to make unemployment benefit contributions.

Like the French and Italians, German teachers' pastoral work is limited, with schools using in-house social workers, speech therapists and educational psychologists, but their favourable pay does come with an expectation of wider participation in school life.

Teachers in Germany take registration, supervise breaks, attend meetings and take work home with them, although workload is not the same issue there as it has been in the UK recently.

The Scandinavian countries broaden the role of the teacher further. In Sweden, teachers are employed to teach a subject and maintain children's welfare. They must take students on class trips, participate in overnight trips once a term, liaise with parents and act as social monitors, letting the authorities know if there are problems with a child or parent.

In primary schools, their duties include playground supervision. They must also develop an individual learning plan for all students and meet them throughout the year - typically twice a term. The Danish teaching model also emphasises pupils' social and personal development as well as their academic work.

Denmark has all-age schools in which children have the same class teacher throughout their school career, from the age of seven to 16. This allows an informal relationship with pupils to develop and close links to be built with their families.

So which approach works best? Marilyn Osborne, of Bristol university, is one of a team of academics that compared the attitude to learning and teaching among 12 to 14-year-old pupils in French, Danish and English schools.

"Danish pupils were by far the most positive about learning and wanting to go to school," she says.

Denmark does, however, have concerns about its international ranking in terms of pupils' achievement. Professor Osborne believes that although its pupils would benefit from more academic feedback, the general approach to learning in Denmark serves students well in later life.

The benefits of closer ties between school and parents have not gone unnoticed in Britain. Labour's election manifesto promised better communication between home and school and government spin-doctors floated the idea of pupils being able to email teachers outside school hours with homework queries.

The latter suggestion did not go down well with the Government's partner unions, which were busy trying to reduce teachers' workload. With the role of teachers in England and Wales already narrowing, it appears to be a battle they are winning. Vive la France.

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