The warning sounded in yesterday's long-awaited report on the workload of teachers could not be starker. Further improvements in school standards will be put at risk if there is not immediate action to reduce teachers' hours.
The report from the profession's independent pay review body stated bluntly: "Teacher shortages hinder and put at risk changes designed to shape the profession for the future: and workload ... appears to be the greatest problem in retaining teachers."
The review body's investigation found that 74 per cent of teachers leaving primary schools and 58 per cent of those quitting secondary schools cited workload as a reason.
Research for the Office of Manpower Economics showed the average weekly term-time hours of primary school teachers had risen from 48.8 to 52.8 between 1994 and 2000. In secondary schools, the figure has gone up from 48.9 to 51.3.
Most of the rise has been attributed to an increase in administrative tasks.
The review body has come up with a number of measures to reduce workload over the next four years. It has not met the English and Welsh teachers' demands for a 35-hour week during term-time – as was conceded to Scottish teachers last year. Nor has it put a ceiling on the number of hours a teacher should spend in front of a class.
However, its recommendations – if implemented – would require a substantial amount of extra resources from the Government to improve the lot of the teacher.
By far the most important call is for a target to be set of reducing the average working week of teachers to 45 hours in the next four years – with an interim target of 48 hours in two years. In effect, teachers would have up to eight hours chopped off their working week.
The way to do this, it argues, is to transfer a list of tasks – 25 of them in all – now done by teachers to classroom assistants. As revealed by The Independent, these include invigilating exams, mounting classroom displays and collecting dinner money.
By doing that, it argues, there could then be a binding amount of time per week set out in teachers' contracts for marking and preparation. Part of that work must be done during the school day.
There should also be a contractual limit on the number of hours per year a teacher is expected to cover classes for colleagues who are absent either through sickness or because they are on courses.
Stephen Timms, the minister for School Standards, speaking to The Independent, acknowledged the marking and preparation guarantee would be more difficult to implement in primary schools – where a teacher would normally have a class for the day – than in secondary schools. He said: "It is going to mean a dramatic change in primary schools. Whereas in secondary schools they do have some free periods, in primary schools they often don't have any."
Yesterday's report comes against the background of a threat by the three main teachers' unions – the National Union of Teachers, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers – to mount joint industrial action in schools in the autumn term if there is no agreement on reducing teachers' workload.
The first reaction from the teachers' unions yesterday was hardly one of unbridled delight. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, said the report "while welcome, does not go far enough in addressing the excessive workload faced by teachers – a workload that is driving teachers out of the profession". He acknowledged that the principles outlined in the report "offer a significant advance on which I hope we can build".
The two key demands made by the unions and not accepted by the report – the call for a 35-hour week and limit on classroom contact time – remain on the negotiating table as far as they are concerned. However, the report was quite dismissive on these counts. It recommended setting a target of a 45-hour week, saying a statutory limit was "unconvincing on practical grounds and unusual for professional people". It added: "We do not believe it is possible to track routinely every minute of time spent on work: work away from the workplace is intrinsically difficult to quantify."
The report also failed to accept that teachers worked harder than any other professionals over the course of a year. True, they worked harder during term-time but the typical teacher worked a 2,157-hour year compared with 2,112 hours a year for the average professional in Britain. Headteachers, though, did work considerably harder than other managers – 2,527 hours per year compared with 2,222. The report concluded: "Teachers on average work more intensive weeks than comparable managers and professionals but at a similar level on a yearly basis once holiday hours are taken into account.
"The intensity of concentrated working periods appears numerically to be compensated for in good part by the relatively long holiday periods."
Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, said the report was "an important step in our mission to raise standards further". She added: "It is vital teachers spend their time teaching, not doing tasks that can be done by others."
Much will now depend on the outcome of negotiations with the teachers' unions. They have until the first week in July to respond to the document. After that, Ms Morris' department will apply for the money to finance the reforms.
Then, in September, 32 schools picked out by the Government to pioneer its plans for modernising the teaching profession – known as the pathfinder schools – will be given extra cash to see if the employment of extra administrative staff does significantly reduce teachers' workload, before the reforms are introduced nationally.
At first sight, yesterday's tantalising package from the review body looks to have enough in it for the unions not to want to take precipitate industrial action and risk throwing the baby away with the bathwater.
Case study Gill Bland, primary school teacher
Gill Bland, a primary school teacher at Newton Farm junior, first and middle school in Harrow, north London, backed the call for a cut in hours.
"I'm doing 52 or 53 hours a week at the momen and I would welcome some time off during the school day for marking and preparation. You'd have to take on extra teaching staff. I wouldn't want to leave my class with somebody who wasn't a teacher.
"My husband, who teaches in a high school, has just had his hours halved," she said. "You can't do that in a primary school."
However, she added that the extra administrative support, which her school will be given from September, would be appreciated. "There are so many administrative jobs they could help us with," she said.
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