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Twilight zones?

Strictly speaking, it is not necessary for the Government to suspend teachers' statutory pay and conditions arrangements in its new education action zones, if, as schools standards minister Stephen Byers suggests (see page 1) the main object is simply to pay more money for extra work.

There is already enough flexibility to offer higher salaries to attract and retain teachers, to reward additional responsibilities or to recognise outstanding performance. It is not the regulations which prevent schools from doing these things; it is lack of cash. And even if statutory pay and conditions did prove restrictive, the teachers' pay review body already seems to have powers to waive them in certain circumstances - such as the action zones. Mr Byers wants the action zones to "pilot new ways of thinking as far as teachers' contracts go"; by which he appears to mean teachers accepting more pay for more work outside the 1,265 directed hours, the 190 days of pupil contact and the five "Baker" days for professional development.

With review body surveys suggesting that most teachers already work 50 hours a week, more pay for more work may not be the best way to convince teachers to take up the challenge of the zones. Difficult-to-staff inner city schools tend to pay above average salaries already, thanks to existing flexibilities and more rapid advancement where jobs outnumber teachers.

Other "conditions" may be more important in persuading better teachers into the harder jobs - or indeed more graduates into teaching - and to accept extra responsibilities: smaller classes or more non-contact time; better technical support and teaching resources; or other perks such as paying off student debts or sabbatical leave for "career refreshment".

Whether Mr Byers is right or wrong about this seems beside the point since the School Standards and Framework Bill, as it stands, will not empower him to make any changes at all in teachers' conditions, let alone to offer personal contracts. It simply enables the governing bodies of individual schools in action zones to apply to have existing pay and conditions rules set aside if they so choose, after consulting their staff.

Grant-maintained schools have long been able to opt out of the national pay and conditions arrangements. And yet only two have done so - in both cases to preserve the status quo rather than to introduce any radical alternative.

What, then, are we to make of Mr Byers's call for individual teachers to sign up to "a more professional teachers' contract"? Clearly he is exhorting those responsible for action zones to break the bounds of the existing contract and show the way for a wider reappraisal of teachers' terms and conditions. That fuller rethink would, presumably, need to follow soon, unless it is envisaged that those on special pay and terms in action zones will simply revert back to the existing ones when the statutory three to five-year life of their zone expires.

It is, of course, perfectly sensible to ask whether the contract forced by Kenneth Baker on to exhausted unions and employers in 1987 to resolve a bitter, protracted and damaging dispute is still - 10 years later - the very best basis for employing teachers. It would be remarkable if it were, either for teachers or the schools responsible for deploying them efficiently. Leaving aside his suggestion that seeking even more paid employment on top of existing workloads is somehow "more professional", Mr Byers is quite right to question whether the present pay and conditions package is adequate to the improvements schools and teachers must make.

Ministers have a far more straightforward and less confrontational way of approaching this. They can simply ask - instruct even - the pay review body to examine any changes they would like to see introduced. This allows others to comment on the merits of their ideas before the review body makes its independent recommendation for the Government to accept or reject.

The action zones may provide empirical pointers for revising teachers' contracts. Or they may not. What is certain is that those leading these pilot schemes will be wholly reliant upon the commitment and enthusiasm of heads, governors and classroom teachers if they are to bring about radical improvements. It cannot be done without them, and their support will be harder to achieve if action zones become synonymous with precipitate and contentious moves to unpick that uneasy industrial relations ceasefire of more than a decade ago.

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