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Heads-on collision, by Conor Ryan

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15 April 2005

A fight has broken out in schools – but the pupils are not to blame. Heads claim that they can't afford both the workload agreement and pay reforms. Teachers say this is just an excuse. Conor Ryan reports

Last month, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly faced the sort of low-level disruption that school inspectors say is now all too common in the classroom. She wasn't talking to a class of disruptive pupils. Nor was she even addressing National Union of Teachers militants (the NUT barred politicians from its proceedings this year to prevent such embarrassments).

Instead, Kelly was outlining her policies to members of the usually supportive Secondary Heads' Association. But the heads jeered, laughed and shook their heads as she claimed her teaching reforms could be afforded within existing budgets.

By contrast, Kelly received a much warmer reception at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers a week later. Even the new NUT general secretary, Steve Sinnott, whose union has been snubbed by ministers since 2003, is building bridges with her. (He quickly disowned NUT President Hilary Bills for calling Kelly Labour's 'worst education secretary'). Heads have normally been the government's allies, and teachers more often its critics. Now those positions are being reversed.

Kelly's SHA speech – her first to a teaching union – was less attuned to her audience than the ATL address. However, the main reason for the different attitudes lies in the workload agreement signed by all the unions except the NUT in 2003, which should make life easier for teachers. Many heads believe they cannot afford to implement it, although it has legal force from September. A few weeks before the SHA conference, the National Association of Head Teachers voted, against its leaders' advice, to withdraw support for the agreement.

With the election only weeks away, Labour hopes to remind the nation's teachers how much better things are for them now than they were in 1997. But teachers need some convincing. A recent poll of 700 in England and Wales for the Times Educational Supplement found that their support for Labour had dipped from 43% in 2001 to 29% this year. However, the party still beats the Liberal Democrats and Tories.

While schools are better equipped and teachers better trained than before, the two biggest practical changes to teachers' working lives are becoming the two biggest financial headaches for many heads: the workload agreement and pay improvements. The agreement was intended to address teachers' complaints that they had to do too much cover for absent colleagues.

Teachers also resented having to work more than 50 hours a week during term-time, much of it performing bureaucratic tasks and attending meetings, as well as planning lessons and marking pupils' work.

Meanwhile, new pay structures have raised teachers' average salaries by more than 13% in real terms. The combined cost of these measures is putting real pressure on school budgets and eating up much of the extra money set aside for education.

The workload agreement reduces the tasks that teachers can be required to undertake, and it limits the time they have to cover for absent colleagues to 38 hours a year.

Schools have absorbed both changes. However, a third major change, which could cost more, particularly for primary schools, becomes law in September. Primary teachers, who tend to teach the same class throughout the school week, have long complained that they have no time during the school day to plan lessons and mark work. After September, they will be legally entitled to spend 10% of their teaching time – the equivalent of half a day a week – on planning, preparation and assessment. Secondary schools should be able to work this into their timetables. But primary schools will need to find other staff to cover classes during this time.

The government assumes that implementing this agreement will not require an extra 10% on the staffing budget. Some of the time should be freed by physical education and other specialist teaching; the rest might be taken up by using senior teaching assistants rather than extra teachers. This is anathema to the NUT, which rejected the deal on those grounds, but heads' leaders accept it.

'If you want a teacher-for-teacher approach, then you have to pay the cost of that,' says NAHT general secretary David Hart. 'But although the cost of a higher level teaching assistant may not be much different initially from employing an extra teacher, the costs diverge enormously over time.'

While the NAHT has advised heads that they have a legal obligation to implement the agreement, Hart insists that some schools face genuine financial difficulties. 'It is a question of money, not will,' he says. 'I don't think you will find any head who hasn't got the will to introduce the agreement. But some may need to pay for it through job losses and by setting deficit budgets.' Teachers' leaders think heads are simply making excuses.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, the second largest teaching union, says: 'Since time immemorial, there have always been some head teachers who have sought to block improvements to working conditions with threats of job loss.'

But in the world of education funding, not everything is as it seems. In fact, Hart, who joined other union leaders in planning the details of the workload deal, believes that there is enough money in the system nationally to cover it. However, he argues that when this gets to the individual school level, things can look very different. In part, this is the result of decisions made by local education authorities about how to distribute funds assumed by central government to be for pay and workload reforms. It is also a result of what has happened to teachers' pay.

Staffing in schools has increased substantially since 1997. Of the extra £1,000 per pupil (after inflation) being spent on schools in England, a quarter has been spent employing an extra 28,000 teachers, 107,000 more teaching assistants and other support staff, such as school secretaries. Another fifth of the extra money has gone on teachers' pay, especially the larger increments for young teachers and performance-related pay. A teacher starting on £19,161 (outside London from September) can earn £28,005 within five years, without any extra responsibilities. He or she can then apply for performance-related pay, and move on a scale from £30,339-£32,628. In the London area, the top rates are up to £6,000 higher. The problem, say secondary heads in particular, is that while their assessments are giving performance pay rises to more than 90% of those applying, the government assumes that fewer than 60% of secondary teachers will merit it (primary heads get a larger proportion). Schools must bridge the gap from their own budgets. This is one reason why a new 'excellent teacher' system is being introduced next year to restrict further performance payments (above the current £32,628 level) to fewer than a third of eligible teachers.

Schools could face even more additional staffing costs in the future. As teaching assistants become more important in schools, Unison is lobbying for a national pay system (something Kelly says she is considering). Many assistants earn as little as £8,000 a year, and pay decisions are taken by local education authorities. A single national system could impose extra costs on the low payers.

Then there is the shift to a new system of responsibility allowances, where teachers with curriculum or management roles could receive up to £11,000 a year on top of their ordinary salary. Heads and governors will have to reassess their staff. While the government assumes the new system will redistribute the £900m currently spent on management responsibilities, this could also lead to extra costs.

Yet, on the face of it, schools have had a good settlement for 2005/06. Secondary schools are guaranteed at least 4% extra per pupil and primaries 5%. Local education authorities have a minimum increase of 5.5%, allowing them to target resources where they are needed most. Many schools and LEAs have received more than these minimum levels.

But other factors come into play. Some LEAs retain more for central services than others, and schools facing falling rolls, as many primary schools are for demographic reasons, lose per capita funding, albeit with some transitional protection.

However, the biggest problem for many individual schools is the age profile of their staff, something exacerbated by the new pay structure. Schools receive similar funding for each pupil, but each experienced staff member with a £32,000 pay bill costs a lot more than a newly qualified teacher on £19,000.

Heads hope that three-year school budgeting from September 2006 will make planning easier. The new system should mean that schools and education authorities have separate budgets, though LEAs will retain some flexibility over how that money is distributed between individual schools locally. 'I'm optimistic that if you add the three-year budgets to the 2005/06 settlement, things look OK,' says Hart. 'But there are serious issues about local authority consultation and decision-making.'

And one still unresolved problem is what happens when special grants for performance pay are included in the general school budgets from 2006/07: previous such transfers have left schools with shortfalls.

Of course, the salaries of many heads and their deputies have risen. Maximum leadership salaries have almost doubled, with several heads earning more than £100,000 a year. Part of the funding problem might stem from heads' reluctance to restrict performance payments more tightly, for fear of upsetting the teaching unions or staff morale.

Whatever the reasons, the combined costs of the new workload agreement and pay reforms are making it difficult, despite the historically large increases in funding. Those pressures seem set to continue, at a time when few commentators believe education spending can rise as quickly in the future as it has done since 1999.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have promised to honour the agreement in office. Shadow education secretary Tim Collins has said that many small rural schools face difficulties finding suitable supervision cover, while Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis has complained about inadequate resources for its implementation.

The issue is unlikely to displace the electoral battleground issues of greater choice for parents and more freedom for schools. However, ensuring that there is enough money in the kitty to pay for staffing changes will be at the top of any education secretary's in-tray, whoever wins next month's election.

Conor Ryan is co-author of Excellence in education: the making of great schools and was an adviser to David Blunkett when he was education secretary

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