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Workload goodwill may vanish

A year on from the signing of the workload agreement and twice as many classroom teachers support it as oppose it, though few have felt much benefit yet. Even among National Union of Teachers members, whose leaders refused to sign, more accept than reject it.

So far, so good, then, as the man who fell off a skyscraper said as he passed the second floor. The deal continues to enjoy considerable goodwill even if there is little tangible to show for it. The crunch has yet to come, next autumn and the year after with guaranteed cover limits and planning and preparation time in the school day. Only about a third think this will happen in September 2005.

The scepticism is greatest in primary - and probably not only because that is the NUT stronghold. It is easier to see how the deal makes sense in secondary schools with their shortages of subject specialists. There the challenge is to protect free periods from cover duties.

Crudely, it does not make much difference whether an absent maths teacher is covered by a qualified history teacher or a retired policeman. Neither can teach maths. The task is to maintain a semblance of order while the class does the work set.

In primary the situation is completely different. Work cannot be set for half a day. There is no pre-existing non-contact time and the equivalent of 10 per cent of the school week now has to be created. That means an extra full-time equivalent in every nine-teacher school.

That would not pose recruitment difficulties given falling rolls - and the ability of trainers to fill primary places many times over. Yet the Government insists the gap should be filled by teaching assistants, presumably on cost grounds. This is almost universally rejected by teachers of every age, stage and trade union. No one has yet asked parents what they think about children losing 10 per cent of their teacher.

Where will such assistants come from? The Government promises that 50 per cent of school-leavers will go on to higher education. That equates with the present proportion obtaining five good GCSEs. It surely does not expect assistants to take on responsibility for children's learning without at least high-grade GCSEs? Yet most who have them will also be graduates - with debts to prove it. How many will be willing - or able - to take on the duties of teaching without the pay?

Two signatories to the agreement underline the primary-secondary dichotomy in The TES this week. Eamonn O'Kane (page 6), whose National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers members are largely secondary, extols the agreement's virtues and urges teachers to keep the faith. David Hart (Platform, 21), from the primary-dominated National Association of Head Teachers, issues a stark warning.

Autumn 2005 is a long way off - probably beyond the next election. The Government cannot even be sure it has met schools' funding needs this year, let alone the additional demands of workload. Much of its public credibility rests upon it doing so. It cannot expect underfunded schools to pull any punches.

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