Features: August 22nd, 2003

A New Partnership Between Government And Teacher Unions

By John Dunford

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Strictly speaking, the six teacher associations are not public sector unions, since all have a significant minority of members in independent schools. Nevertheless, it is the framework in which state schools and their teachers work that concerns us most and we engage with the government on all aspects of education policy. We represent our members, as all good trade unions should, but we also represent the interests of schools, colleges and their students. An effective union is an effective pressure group on all the issues that affect its members and, in schools and colleges, that means every aspect of education policy.

The recent talks about teacher workload provide an instructive example of the way in which teacher unions are engaging with the government. It is a very different picture from the confrontation and lack of engagement that has characterized union/government relations in the past.

The McCrone agreement in 2000 on a new teachers’ contract in Scotland, based on a 35-hour working week, fomented discontent in England about teacher workload. It sparked off a process that culminated in a historic signing ceremony between the government in Whitehall and the teacher associations on 15 January 2003. The support staff unions (GMB, TGWU and UNISON), the local authority employers and the Welsh Assembly were also signatories. The Scottish and English agreements are very different, however, reflecting the different relationship between government and the teachers north and south of the border.

Reduced workload demands

The first move on teacher workload in England came in a 1998 government circular on reducing bureaucracy in schools. Staff meetings, parent consultation evenings and other meetings were to be limited to one per week and reports to parents to one per year, for example. The circular was advisory, but two of the big classroom unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), used it as the basis to insist that school calendars were changed to accommodate their instruction to members to limit attendance at meetings and report writing. Other sanctions, limiting administrative tasks for teachers, were carried out in many schools too.

This “Time for a Limit” campaign was part of the unions’ demand for a McCrone-style 35-hour week, an aspiration to which the government very quickly made clear its opposition. Government and teacher unions were, as usual, in conflict, but the issue of teacher workload was firmly on the agenda.

Any settlement of this dispute was clearly going to be costly to the public purse and the government had to play for time until the 2002 Comprehensive Spending Review. Union impatience was held at bay through the classic tactic of an in-depth investigation, carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers. PWC found that teachers’ hours were excessive during term time but that, averaged over the year as a whole, they were the same as the hours worked by people doing other comparable jobs. The people whose hours were most in excess of comparable jobs were the secondary head teachers.

Workload and pay

As 2001 moved into 2002, the PWC recommendations were passed to the School Teachers’ Pay Review Body (STRB), which produced a workable set of recommendations. By now, the classroom unions had recognized that the 35-hour week was never going to be achievable and, pragmatically, they began to work constructively on the STRB recommendations in an attempt to wring every ounce of benefit to teachers from them. All associations, including those representing school leaders, could find something for their members in the STRB proposals.

There followed a long series of meetings between Department for Education and Skills (DfES) civil servants from the school workforce unit (a significant new name for the former “teachers’ group” in the Department), six teacher associations, three support staff unions, the local authority employers and the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG). After chairing some of the early meetings herself, Estelle Morris handed over to the Schools’ Minister, David Miliband, the former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, who moved discussions forward at an increased pace. Most of the meetings, however, were with senior civil servants, with (fortunately) a limit of one representative per union at the meetings where most of the work was done.

Re-modelling school workforce

By now, the government had moved the agenda from the sole issue of teacher workload to the wider context of re-modelling the school workforce. It soon became apparent that all parties, except the National Union of Teachers (NUT), were willing to compromise. The language of the discussions changed too: government officials began to refer to unions and employers as national partners and, indeed, that is how it felt as we all drew our lines in the sand and, at the same time, tried to accommodate the elements that were non-negotiable for others.

For the associations representing head teachers, the bottom lines were that the settlement must be adequately funded across the whole of England and Wales, that the government changes the way it implements new initiatives, that heads in primary schools were given more management time and that the jobs of the teachers in our schools are made more attractive in order to improve the recruitment and retention situation. We sought an agreement that retained for head teachers a much greater degree of management flexibility than now exists – as a direct result of the McCrone settlement – in Scotland.

Re-shaping teacher responsibilities

An immediate difficulty for head teachers was the list of 25 administrative tasks that heads would no longer be able to require teachers to perform. Teachers’ contracts will stipulate that they may not be required to collect money, chase pupil absences, produce standard letters and class lists, do filing, collate reports, administer work experience, order supplies and equipment, produce minutes of meetings, do classroom display and the like. All these tasks – now routinely done by teachers – have to be delegated to support staff, whose numbers have greatly increased in recent years and will now have to grow rapidly.

The item on this list that gave secondary school leaders particular cause for concern was examination invigilation, which they regarded as a proper professional task, but the other parties recognized the strength of our views on this and were prepared to agree a two-year delay in the implementation of this part of the Agreement.

The elements of the final agreement were:

  • delegation of 24 administrative tasks to support staff (Sept 2003);
  • an obligation on heads to consider the work/life balance of staff, and on governors to consider the work/life balance of the head (2003);
  • an allocation of leadership time for heads and those holding leadership positions (2003);
  • a limit of 38 hours annually per teacher on the amount of cover done by teachers for absent colleagues (2004), with the 38 hours being progressively reduced thereafter by national agreement;
  • guaranteed planning, preparation and assessment time for all teachers, amounting to ten per cent of their normal timetabled teaching time (2005);
  • delegation of examination invigilation to support staff (2005);
  • an Implementation Review Unit, comprising 12 school leaders, to monitor all government initiatives for excess bureaucracy and ease of implementation in schools (Easter 2003);
  • a new structure of support staff, to include higher level teaching assistants, capable of supervising groups of pupils.

It was this last point to which the NUT could not agree. The NUT refused to sign the Agreement and embarked on an expensive advertising campaign against its provisions, painting dark pictures of classes of 60 that have no basis in the Agreement. The NUT now has no place on the Monitoring Group established for all the other partners to carry forward the Agreement.

One aspect of the new partnership was that, when it became apparent that the NUT might be unwilling to sign, the government was not in a position to negotiate bilaterally with the NUT, since any change in the terms of the Agreement could only be made by all parties working together.

Making teaching more attractive

Secondary Heads Association (SHA) members see this agreement as an opportunity to re-model their staff and introduce more, and more varied, support staff into schools in a way that will make the job of the teacher more attractive.

SHA members are particularly attracted, too, to the notion of the Implementation Review Unit (IRU), an opportunity at last for the leaders of the profession to change the way that the government controls schools. Although this was something for which head teacher associations pressed particularly hard, the final form of the IRU owes more to the DfES itself and its determination to introduce education reforms more effectively and efficiently. The IRU will be a panel of 12 school leaders, meeting regularly, with the ability to summon ministers and civil servants and produce an independent annual report. The IRU will have a secretariat in the DfES, which will surely have an interesting relationship with its fellow civil servants. It will, we hope, produce a culture change in the way the government operates in the field of education policy.

The IRU provides an interesting model for government departments, opening up the possibility for severe criticism of ministers and civil servants by an officially appointed group of practitioners. I look forward to the Department of Health establishing a panel of doctors and nurses to comment on the way in which Alan Milburn’s policies affect the service at ground level. Perhaps, too, there will be a panel of barristers and solicitors to produce an annual report on the Lord Chancellor’s reforms.

As the unions are signatories to the Agreement, we have a strong interest in making it work. It has not been an easy experience, especially for the big classroom unions, moving from the natural mode of confrontation to being national partners with a government department in the reform of the profession.

In Wales, the situation is complicated by the contractual parts of the Agreement applying equally to London and Cardiff, but other elements – including funding – allowing for some Welsh flexibility. The education minister, Jane Davidson, a former local government official, has always used the language of partnership between the WAG, local authorities and teacher unions, although the bond of partnership is a good deal stronger between the WAG and the local authorities than with the teacher associations. The unions in Wales are more suspicious of the WAG than they are of the DfES over the workforce reforms. Not for the first time in recent years, the devolved solutions may well look quite different from what has been agreed in London.

John Dunford is General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.