Teaching Profession

Historic Pact Expected to Lighten British Teachers’ Workload

By Bess Keller — February 12, 2003 3 min read
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Teachers’ unions and government leaders in Britain have agreed on a plan to redistribute the work in schools so that teachers will have more time for better teaching but a lighter load overall.

Two years in the making, the historic deal to rewrite teachers’ contracts in England and Wales is moving forward without the support of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, which fears that teaching assistants could replace teachers under cover of the agreement.

The pact attempts to temper escalating demands on teachers—who are in short supply in Britain as they are in many places and specialties in the United States—as well as help them meet higher standards for student achievement.

A government-sponsored study in 2001 found that British teachers worked hours comparable to those of other professions, when averaged over the year. But when schools were in session, they worked on average 52 hours a week, and 16 percent of their time went to administrative and other tasks.

The agreement includes the guarantee of the equivalent of a half-day a week for planning, assessment, and marking; the elimination of nonteaching tasks by the coming school year; and a cap on the number of hours a teacher must spend covering the classes of absent colleagues. It also makes a commitment to cut teachers’ total hours within four years.

“This package of reforms will change the way teaching and learning develops in the United Kingdom,” said a government spokeswoman. “Pupils will get more attention, and teachers will get more time to teach.”

The spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified, likened the envisioned changes to those that were made years ago in hospitals, where doctors, nurses, and other workers have different roles related to the care of patients. In the case of schools, teachers would be analogous to doctors, and teaching assistants would function somewhat as nurses do.

‘Price Is Too High’

Under the agreement, a class of high-level teaching assistants— not yet established—would be allowed to provide occasional lessons. That provision was the sticking point with the National Union of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers’ association, with 210,000 teachers in state schools at the precollegiate level.

In a statement to members, the head of the union, Doug McAvoy, praised the government’s deal as offering “significant improvements in the contract.” But, he declared, “the price is to accept that unqualified persons will teach whole classes. That price is too high.”

Some unionists, school administrators, and members of local education authorities fear that the extra money the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised—predicted to be the equivalent of about $1.64 billion a year in U.S. money by 2005—won’t be enough to make the agreement work.

They say that the money can help recruit more teachers and support-staff employees, but that if teachers continue to be in short supply, it will be hard to ease workloads without blurring the division between teachers and assistants. Some have calculated that the additional money divided among all the primary schools involved would not be enough to employ a single full-time teaching assistant.

A Seat at the Table

Gerald Imison of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the country’s third-largest teachers’ union, acknowledged the danger in the plan. But, he said, taking the risk was the only way to be at the table, pressing for a workload restructured along lines favored by teachers.

Primary teachers in particular were crying out for time during the school day to prepare lessons and grade papers, according to Mr. Imison. “We have many, many reports of teachers working from 8 in the morning till school finishes at 3,” he said, without any break from the classroom other than for lunch. The result is an additional several hours of work after school and at home in the evening.

Mr. Imison’s union was one of five that signed the agreement last month, making the National Union of Teachers the only holdout among the six major teachers’ unions. As such, government leaders have excluded them from talks to flesh out the agreement.

“The agreement sets a framework with detailed negotiations to come that will make it or break it,” Mr. Imison said. “Our executive committee has made it clear that if we can’t get the safeguards we want, we may have to walk away.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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