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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Teachers' campaign for 35-hour week
By education correspondent Mike Baker
I returned from an Easter spent with the teacher unions with one phrase ringing in my ears: "A 35-hour week for teachers".
In Torquay, Cardiff and Jersey delegates from the three big teacher unions managed, with rare unanimity, to agree on one thing: A joint campaign for a 35-hour week backed up by the threat of industrial action if they don't get it.
It is almost an Easter ritual to read newspaper headlines about teacher unions threatening industrial action. Often they prove to have no more substance than the candyfloss being sold outside those seaside conference venues.
But, for several reasons, it could be different this time. For a start, while calls for industrial action are littered throughout the resolutions at the NUT conference, they are rare indeed from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
Not only is the ATL congenitally attached to the label "traditionally moderate" but it is the only union I know where the delegates stand up whenever a government minister enters their conference hall. If the ATL is ready to threaten industrial action, teachers must be fed up.
An awful lot of votes
It is rare, too, for the NUT and its big rival, the NASUWT, to agree on anything especially when competition for membership is at stake. But on this there's barely a cigarette paper between them.
Timing is another factor which could add to the leverage of this joint campaign. A general election is in the offing. Teachers represent an awful lot of votes and - as the prime minister's visit to the ATL conference showed - politicians have recently started trying to woo that vote.
The unions' recent industrial action, involving refusal to cover for staff shortages, revealed how the prospect of thousands of pupils being sent home during an election campaign can concentrate ministers' minds.
It prompted the government's offer of a "review" of teacher's workload although ministers insist its remit does not extend to a limit on working hours.
But perhaps most significant of all is the devolution factor. The Scottish Parliament agreed to an inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions then accepted its proposal for a 35-hour week for Scottish teachers. That will become a reality in Scottish schools from September.
If Scottish teachers can make the 35-hour week work, without jeopardising standards, the pressure on Westminster will increase. There are already suggestions that the Welsh Assembly is interested in following the Scots along the path of an inquiry into pay and conditions.
If teachers in some parts of Britain are working a 35-hour week it will be harder for the government to insist it is unworkable.
There is one final factor to consider: The current teacher shortage. This might seem to play against the teachers. After all, how can they work a shorter week when there aren't enough of them to go around in the first place?
However, teachers will argue that overwork and stress are among the key reasons why too many teachers are leaving and not enough new ones are being enticed in to meet recruitment targets. Although this argument conveniently ignores the fact that the number of teachers in post has actually gone up in recent years, it remains true that many more recruits are needed.
While the shortage will make it harder for head teachers in many schools to re-jig timetables to ensure a 35-hour week, a limit on teachers' hours might just send an important message to graduates trying to decide on a career.
They may think: "35 hours, that's just for wimps". On the other hand, it might just appeal to those who want a life as well a job.
Meanwhile, the government insists a limit on teachers' hours is not compatible with their role as professionals. But which other "profession" is not free to negotiate its own pay rates (teachers in England and Wales lost their rights a decade ago)? Barristers, solicitors, architects or chartered surveyors can all set their own hours and fees.
Which other profession is told, by law, the minimum number of hours and days its members must work? Teachers are required by law to work 195 days a year. Within that time they must be available to undertake duties at the direction of the head teacher for up to 1,265 hours per year.
Those 1,265 hours, over 195 days or 39 weeks a year, work out at 6.5 hours a day. This is the minimum that teachers must be in school and available.
Of course, most teachers work far longer hours than these. But do minimum requirements like this encourage teachers to feel like self-scheduling, independent professionals?
And if minimum hours are considered appropriate for a profession, it might be inconsistent to refuse maximum hours.
Mike Baker welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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