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What price 'time-out' promise?

This week is supposed to mark the beginning of a brave new workload world.

It was always going to be a modest start, helping teachers teach by relieving them of clerical or administrative work. The biggest step forward - the assessment and preparation time guaranteed to all teachers - does not come until autumn 2005.

Given this year's cash crisis in many schools, it is just as well the agreement had such a soft launch. But the important consensus behind it survives - hanging by a thread in some cases. The Government and unions who signed up to it know the agreement is in trouble. But the prize of a more sustainable and attractive profession remains too important to abandon.

The workload agreement remains the best chance teachers have of restoring a sensible balance to their working lives. Both the unions and ministers who support it have taken big political risks to get this far.So the parties to the agreement continue to cling to the vision in the hope that funding in future will rescue them. But since nobody knows for sure how deeply schools are in the red this year or how far they have to go to meet the requirements of the deal, nobody can be really sure what funding is needed.

On the ground it is hard to find many schools taking the historic agreement too seriously. That is understandable. For primary schools in particular, and especially those shedding teachers and classroom assistants, half-day a week non-contact time in 2005 must seem as real a prospect as the million-to-one asteroid strike astronomers are predicting for 2014.

Phasing in the deal provides breathing space. But only a few months. With many schools surviving this year on reserves that have now been spent, more money for next year needs to be on offer by November to avoid further redundancies, let alone deliver on workload. Some heads are at breaking point. As the threat to boycott the upper pay spine shows, most would sooner hold the Government to its promises than face the ire of their staff.

Rivalry between teachers' unions has helped keep on board those who have signed up. Leaving the biggest teachers' union out in the cold, however, not only focuses dissent over workload but strengthens the NUT's militants, making a SATs boycott more likely and boosting their candidates in next year's leadership contest.

Perhaps Charles Clarke should be seeking reconciliation as Prime Minister Tony Blair did with the rest of the TUC this week.

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