news analysis - teachers and the workload agreement


Just over a year ago teacher unions were united. Teachers' workload was unsustainable. The profession was struggling to recruit. Trained teachers were leaving in droves — unwilling to work unacceptable hours for inadequate pay. This crisis could no longer be denied by the government.

As the two largest teacher unions began this year's conference season all of the above remained true — apart from the first statement. The NUT and the NASUWT have each distributed literature to their members' home addresses castigating the other union. Charles Clarke and the employers must be rubbing their hands in glee.

The main reason for this bitter division is the government's workforce reform agreement with the teacher unions (apart from the NUT) and UNISON.

The key concern of the NUT is that elements of the workforce reform agreement will seriously undermine the professionalism of teachers and the quality of education, by requiring unqualified staff to take sole charge of classes — 30 or so pupils — while under the notional supervision of a qualified teacher who may not even be in the building. The NUT believes that the government's response to the recruitment and retention crisis is to use agreement as a vehicle for providing a cheap and low-quality education service employing even fewer qualified teachers.

The other unions see the agreement as a means of reducing teacher workload, and thereby the recruitment crisis, while providing an improved career structure for classroom assistants and other support staff. Hence the bitter division.

So what now needs to be done? The use of unqualified staff to supervise classes is happening — and the government refuses to regulate their conditions or pay, saying instead that these are matters for schools or local authorities. At the moment these workers are mainly "cover managers" or "learning supervisors", employed largely to cover classes of absent teachers — at about one-quarter of the daily cost of agency supply teachers. This has been met by some resistance from NUT members — but we need to recognise that this resistance has been patchy.

Take the example of one local authority, Oldham. The area has 14 secondary schools, 3 of which have recruited cover managers since September. One of the schools has seen its NUT members take action and another's NUT members are considering this, while negotiations with the headteacher continue.

But members do recognise the benefits of reduced workload through not having to cover so much for absent colleagues, and so the key issue has become reducing the number of days a cover manager is used before a qualified supply teacher is employed. The great danger is that the employment of such support staff is happening piecemeal, school by school, with no regulation of their conditions or pay.

The NUT's opposition to the government's plans for education has been principled. Its attacks on other unions have not been tactically astute. All teachers need to guard against the dilution of their professionalism — the first step is of course recognising the attack. We have not succeeded in preventing unqualified workers teaching whole classes — the imperative now must be to regulate their pay, conditions of service, training and skill.