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Work-life balance on the cheap

The workforce agreement is a step in the right direction but needs proper funding to make an impact, writes John Cattermole

I'm returning, with excitement, anticipation, a certain amount of fear, but a good deal of hope." These were the words with which my article in The TES in January 2004 ended. After an 18-month "sabbatical", I had decided to leave office life in publishing and go back to the classroom, to the variety and daily challenges of teaching.

One year on and I have no regrets about returning, despite often working 25 hours more per week than in nine-to-five land. Knowledge of the long-hours culture is, unfortunately, what still prevents many would-be teachers from joining the profession, along with constant media references to increased form-filling and paperwork. However, time should be less of a problem with the final stage of the Government's workforce agreement.

The PPA scheme (planning, preparation and assessment), binding as of September 2005, requires all primary and secondary schools to give at least 10 per cent of teaching time as non-contact time per week, normally equivalent to about two hours and 20 minutes.

This time out from the classroom, always seemed to be where our secondary colleagues had improved conditions, having breathing space to catch up and organise their week more appropriately as a professional. However, as I am part of the management team, I have seen that the real headache for primary schools has only just begun in terms of implementing such a scheme, mainly because little new money has been given to pay for additional staff. In other words, how do schools fund extra adults to teach children while the class teacher is out?

My personal preference would have been for a language specialist to be appointed to teach either French or Spanish to the "language sponges" that await them in the primary classroom, but how many schools can afford that? Losing a teacher from the payroll is one possible solution, but this would make a mockery of work-life balance with larger classes, more marking and ultimately children losing out with less-personalised lessons and fewer opportunities for group or one-to-one guidance.

We will therefore move forward with a combined system of sports, arts, crafts, information and communications technology lessons and topics delivered by qualified teaching assistants, some specialist instructors and parental volunteers. It is a step into the dark, which should create a happier workforce of teachers who may actually be able to leave at 3:20pm occasionally, no one is sure how children will react to the system.

I know of colleagues who would rather not have non-contact time if it means returning to an unsettled class. But one could argue that primary teachers need to relinquish control slightly, and allow other bodies in to teach their children.

Most worrying of all is the news, (TES, March 18) that hundreds of primary schools will not even be implementing any PPA at all, for reasons ranging from financial ones to their position in the league tables. If this latter reason is cited, then it is an indication that, for such schools, league-table performance is more important than a happy, relaxed workforce.

This concern over attainment seems misplaced as regards PPA, because how many schools will be scheduling literacy or numeracy lessons as part of that time, allowing another adult to deliver these important parts of the curriculum? Teachers would not want someone else to teach these subjects because of the planning and differentiation procedures involved to deliver them successfully.

A PPA system is far more effective if adults with a specialism are involved, who might be trained teachers if budget allows, or trained TAs andor adult volunteers. In this way, children would not be losing out, but rather having their learning enhanced in aspects of the curriculum which are not measured in Sats tests, but which still constitute an important part of their education, such as PE, art, history, music, design and technology or foreign languages.

Schools like North primary in Colchester are right to be concerned about standards, but PPA should not mean attainment falling - quite the contrary.

An organised, imaginative system could mean children having their opportunities enhanced and horizons widened, becoming better learners as a result.

The Government is, in an election year, giving primary teachers a long-overdue dose of modern working practices, but it is work-life balance on the cheap.

The workforce agreement is a step in the right direction, as it will ensure that the long-hours culture, while not being dismantled, is at least being addressed to make the working week more manageable. As the general election approaches, teachers should be demanding funding from the political parties for more specialist teachers to make PPA fully successful for all at school.

However successful the Teacher Training Agency's Use Your Head - Teach campaign has been, I am sure that there would be even more recruits if would-be teachers were tempted by the promise of the 35 hours a week that our colleagues enjoy in Scotland.

Working with children is hugely rewarding and certainly keeps you feeling young, hence the "anti-ageing cream" slogan is used to encourage recruitment. But I wonder whether teachers' worry-lines will be kept at bay by these latest, and inadequate, government initiatives.

John Cattermole is a primary teacher in Cambridgeshire

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