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Were unions right to sign the deal? Absolutely

It is a year since the national agreement on raising standards and reducing workload was signed. Hailed as historic, does it still merit that description 12 months later? In my view, unequivocally yes.

Of course, as the TES survey shows, the implementation of contractual changes releasing teachers from a range of administrative tasks has been patchy, particularly in primary schools. But the momentum towards a cultural change has been established.

Crucial to that shift is the realisation that the days of admonition and persuasion are over, teachers are no longer contractually required to do these tasks.

These advances are only the beginning. The agreement has a three-year span.

Limits on the amount of time teachers spend covering for absent colleagues will be introduced in 2004-05,. From 2005-06, teachers' contracts will grant them planning, preparation and assessment time during the school day.

Calls for such changes have been the hardy perennials of teacher union conferences. We are now in sight of achieving them.

The agreement brings more than long-overdue contractual changes: it is the harbinger of a significant cultural shift. The fear that qualified teachers will be substituted by non-teachers is entirely unfounded. The agreement makes clear that qualified teachers retain pedagogic responsibility for pupils; but equally it sets out roles that other adults can play in schools. Far from resisting this, we should welcome it. If school workforce remodelling means an increase in staff helping teachers, that can only benefit everybody. It will release teachers to concentrate on the arduous task of teaching and will highlight teachers' pedagogic leadership role whilst ensuring support staff make their vital contribution.

One further, vital aspect of the agreement - not necessarily recognised by teachers now but which could have major ramifications - is the ongoing negotiations. These detailed discussions on how it is being implemented represent a significant step forward in the relationship between local and national government and unions.

For years, we have protested at the lack of real consultation by government over changes in education. This has understandably angered and irritated teachers.

This agreement has shown that simply handing down diktat from above will not do. An implementation review unit now examines every initiative for workload implications. A national remodelling team works alongside education authorities and unions to implement the agreement. The signatories hold almost weekly discussions.

All this has been achieved without any party losing independence. This is no mutual admiration society. It involves hard discussions and disagreements but recognises that co-operation can deliver real benefits to teachers and pupils.

Is not this state of affairs one in which the truly positive side of teaching can be fully explored? I believe the agreement creates the best conditions for the fulfilment of such hopes.

Eamonn O'Kane is general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers

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