Workload Agreement: Great leap forward or a small step backward?

This term, for the first time, teachers are being given 10 per cent of the school day for planning and marking. The Government says that the reform has been introduced smoothly. But Steve McCormack finds a different picture
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The Independent Online

We're on the crest of a momentous wave of progress in schools, according to Government rhetoric, with teachers enjoying an historic change to their working conditions, enabling them to drive up the achievement of their pupils.

That is because the 400,000 schoolteachers in England are legally entitled from this term to have 10 per cent of time out of the classroom to prepare lessons and mark work. This innovation is called planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. Teachers have always had to plan what they are going to teach and assess pupils' work to ensure that children are learning as much as possible, but now they're getting ring-fenced time within the school day to do it.

Press releases from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) paint a picture of a universally smooth implementation of the change. The image is of teachers, relieved of the duty to be in a room full of 30 children every hour of the day, now sitting calmly for two or three hours, doing the planning and marking that is so essential to the job - re-energised teachers providing higher quality education. But the truth is somewhat different.

Although most schools, faced with threats of the consequences of non-compliance, have cobbled together a patchwork of measures to give teachers their allotted time, few are comfortable with how they have achieved it or how it is being paid for. The central and ubiquitous gripe is about money. No one, outside the DfES, believes that heads have been given enough in their budgets to pay for the extra staff needed to keep high-quality education going while the class teachers are away. So, schools have either gone for cheap options, or raided sections of the school budget intended for other purposes.

The difficulties are most acute in primary schools, where, historically, teachers have had no, or precious little, free time. Now, every teacher has a right to be out of the classroom for about two-and-a-half hours a week. But who is looking after their children, and what are they doing while teacher is away?

The neat answer would be to employ additional qualified teachers to fill in for the staff doing their PPA. But that is expensive, and those schools that have gone down that path admit they can't really afford it.

Douglas Rae, head of South Park School, a big primary with 800 pupils in Ilford, in Essex, has employed two extra teachers at a cost of £75,000, but, even by scraping together every extra bit of money received under three different headings this year, there was only £49,000 to allocate to PPA. The shortfall came from precious "rainy day" reserves, which have now gone. He has no idea how he'll pay for the extra staff next year. "How can you make it work, when the cost of doing it properly is so much more than what we've been given?" he asks.

At Nelson Primary, in East Ham, the story is the same. Tim Benson, the head, has employed three extra teachers by dipping into reserves to the tune of around £40,000. That money will not be there in 12 months' time.

But most schools have far smaller overall budgets and, therefore, have had to square the circle by being creative with the school day, so that a mixture of adults, with a variety of qualifications, keep the children occupied and learning, while their class teachers prepare, plan and mark.

This approach is what the Government calls workforce remodelling. To most teachers and heads, it means scrimping and saving on expenditure, and finding imaginative ways of occupying pupils.

A typical approach is that adopted by Alan Stockley, head of Ladywood Primary in South Staffordshire. Here, teaching assistants, some with the new higher-level qualification, work in pairs to take classes while their teachers are away. They cover subjects such as personal, health and social education, and do circle time, when children have group discussions.

For two days a week, the school's special needs (SEN) co-ordinator is now taking a whole class, where before she would have been either working with individual pupils with difficulties, or administering the SEN system for the school as a whole.

The final piece in the jigsaw comes from a supply teacher who is being employed regularly for one day a week. In all, Stockley reckons it is costing an extra £28,000 a year, nearly three times what he was given in his budget. "The Government are only really paying lip-service to the workload agreement," he complains.

"If they had really meant it, they would have simply asked us what our salary bill was, and given us an extra 10 per cent."

Like many heads, David Fann, at Sherwood Primary in Preston, is bridging the gap by taking on more teaching himself. He is also using two trainee teachers to take some classes on their own. And the final device is one favoured by numerous schools trying to get a quart into a pint pot. He is extending the length of assembly two mornings a week, and introducing extra hymn singing practice.

The beauty of this is that it engages all 370 of the school's pupils in the hall under the supervision of just one or two senior teachers, creating free time that can be used by the class teachers for PPA. "Overall, it's a rather cheapskate option," he admits, "but to do it properly would cost about £30,000, and this year I got only an extra £5,000 to £10,000 for PPA."

Fann is the representative of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) for much of Lancashire. Among his colleagues he sees heads who have come up with similar, hybrid solutions, but most envisage problems in 12 months' time.

"The vast majority have put it in place by using some of their financial reserves, in the hope that next year it will be funded better," he says, "but I'm not hopeful."

Another head, from East London, who chose not to be named, is also extending assemblies and singing practices to half an hour, which he admits is longer than they should be for young children, and tacking them on to morning playtime. That way, his teachers get 45 minutes on their own. A mixture of other measures throughout the week creates the rest of the time.

He agrees with the principle of PPA time, but questions the educational soundness of the solutions forced on heads. "Parents are right to ask whether 10 per cent more time out of the classroom for their children's teachers means 10 per cent less time their kids are being taught," he says.

What seems indisputable is that the process of creating PPA time has proved a time-consuming and logistically complex process, the burden of which has fallen mainly on primary heads. And most are worried that the sticking plaster solutions may unravel next year

Mick Brookes, the new NAHT general secretary, until recently a primary head himself, expresses profound concerns about the mounting pressure on individual heads, many of whom are increasing their own workload to decrease that of their staff.

This is a particularly powerful point, given nationwide difficulties in finding applicants for vacant head teachers' positions. There is widespread anecdotal evidence that, faced with the PPA burden, large numbers of heads opted for early retirement last year, creating vacancies which have not yet been filled. "The number of heads I met during the summer who told me they did not want to go back to school was striking," he says. "It is becoming a job which people are being advised not to touch because of the workload."

But the most glaring flaw in Government claims for the PPA reform is that it offers nothing new to secondary teachers, who already receive a handful of periods a week for preparation and marking. Despite this, it is the secondary sector where there are serious teacher shortages in certain subjects and in certain parts of the country, and where bad behaviour continues to sap energy and morale in many schools.

Here, the various other elements of the workload agreement appear to have eased workload in a limited way. But no one in secondary schools seriously argues that PPA is a great leap forward.

In brief: How teachers' workload has been reduced

March 2001: Teachers take industrial action over staff shortages and refuse to cover for absent colleagues.

April 2001: Education Secretary David Blunkett sets up a working party to negotiate new conditions for teachers to make the job more attractive.

September 2003: Teachers no longer have to perform "routine administrative tasks".

September 2004: No teacher can be asked to fill in for an absent colleague for more than 38 hours a year. In most schools this means a maximum of one "cover lesson" a week.

September 2005: Ten per cent PPA time for all teachers, and secondary teachers should not have to invigilate during external exams, mainly GCSEs and A-levels.

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