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Workforce deal revolt in Essex

County's heads at odds with their union over giving teachers free time to plan and mark, writes William Stewart

Dark clouds gathered and a chill wind cut across the car park as more than 100 Essex primary heads arrived to express concerns about the school workforce agreement last week.

The mood once they got inside was little better. It takes a lot to drag busy heads away from their schools, particularly on a Friday afternoon.

But more than 130 Essex heads made the trip to a country club near Purleigh to say schools cannot afford to release teachers from the classroom to spend 10 per cent of their time on planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) from September.

"No headteacher here is against PPA time. We are against being asked to do something from scratch without enough funding," said Stephen Clark, head of Stebbing primary, summing up the mood of the meeting organised by the Essex Primary Heads Association.

Some regional leaders from the National Association of Head Teachers have being saying as much for many months. But, this was the first time such sentiments had been expressed so clearly by so many ordinary, grassroots heads. These were not union militants: they were polite, smartly dressed heads from a traditionally conservative part of the country.

Some told the meeting that the cost of PPA time would compromise standards and that they had already decided not to implement it, either wholly or in part.

And there were gasps when Christine Marshall, head of the Spinney junior, Harlow, said she had decided on a redundancy to fund PPA time.

But a show of hands indicated that another 14 schools expected to have to do the same.

Those who say the agreement is workable will argue that such decisions are premature as most schools have yet to receive their full budgets.

A more alarming message for the Government was that many primary heads are refusing to accept one of the agreement's basic tenets: that support staff should cover for teachers taking PPA time.

"We want the choice over whether we are going to bring in extra teachers or extra teaching assistants," said one head.

Another straw poll revealed that only 17 of the schools represented said they had support staff prepared to take on the extra responsibilities.

But it was a message that no one from the Department for Education and Skills or its National Remodelling Team was there to hear, even though they had been invited.

Instead Yvonne Evans, an Essex council employee seconded to co-ordinate remodelling in the county, was left to carry the can. "You are asking me questions about government policy and decisions of professional associations that I don't represent," she protested.

An announcement of further training, presumably intended to pacify her audience, only led to a collective groan.

The NAHT also came in for heavy criticism with one head accusing it of selling members "right down the river".

The meeting voted to contact other regions to explore whether a special national conference could be triggered that would have the power to overturn the NAHT national council's decision not to withdraw from the agreement.

Tim Benson, East London council member, promised the NAHT would listen to and support its members. But, he confessed: "I have not convinced you of the NAHT council's position being the right one. I am not convinced of that myself, to be honest."

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