“And therefore, unsurprisingly, if you ask people whether they feel that teachers are freer today than ever to inspire, whether they feel that employers are more attentive, responsive and considerate, whether they feel there is more time and space for family life, then you’ll find that the answer is a powerful NO.”

Michael Gove

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, believes in teacher freedom within a framework of attentive, responsive and considerate employment conditions which promote a strong work-life balance…well…at least he did back in 2008!

A personal blog by Paul Kirby, former head of policy development at No.10, on the subject of extending the school day and contracting holiday entitlement, has triggered a debate across social media sites, and no doubt staffrooms throughout the land. Whilst one imagines that each iteration of this debate (which was ruminating in April of last year; February of 2012 and May of 2010) bring alternative fresh perspectives, the arguments are as polarised and stale as they were in July of 1887!

“July of when?” I hear you ask…

The length of school holidays was debated as vociferously in the 19th Century with one professional commentator asking, “is it not…worthwhile to consider whether the present length of the school holidays does not militate against good preparation for subsequent work by necessitating the cramming into the remaining weeks of the year more work than…can fairly manage in that time, thus giving rise to the army of crammers necessary nowadays to prepare boys for examinations”. Sound familiar?

THE POLEMIC

Well gloves off, it’s time for the latest round. In the red (or slightly rose tinted) corner: the historical mythmakers who claim the school system has been designed for a 19th-century agricultural economy and reform needs to reflect our modern day society.

They’re against the ropes already: the school year is not primarily designed around the needs of English farmers and never has been. Jacob Middleton, historian of London’s Birkbeck College, said, “by the late 18th Century, English farms were largely mechanised. Small holdings were increasingly rare”. There was not enough work for adult men of the time and the Factory Act of 1830 placed growing limitations around child-labour. Even education reports like the Taunton Report of 1868 reflected a widespread concern that over two thirds of English towns had no secondary schools of any kind. I hardly think that this tail wagged such a patchwork dog.

And… in the black hat corner: the black hats – “it won’t work and we’re not changing”.

Let me be clear: we need change. There is a reason that 40% of new entrants are leaving teaching within five years. This is no time for the teaching profession to retreat, entrench and fortify its position – in order to support the very people it stands for, professional bodies need to recognise that inaction will only exacerbate the situation.

Let me be clear: there is one change we need to avoid. Studies in Hong Kong, Singapore and other East Asian countries reveal demanding expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific competence. Elevated PISA rankings lead policy makers to clamor for school days that are longer; school holidays which are shorter and an expectation that to succeed we need to go at it harder and for protracted periods.

The Shadow Education Secretary of 2008 spoke of his desire to put relationships at the heart of policy. He pledged to challenge, “the long-hours culture at work”. So what does that mean in practice?

ANOTHER SOLUTION

Teachers work 1265 hours a year over 39 weeks and therefore have 13 weeks annual holiday a year. The majority of those outside the profession might expect to work for 45 weeks with just over 5 weeks annual holiday plus bank holidays. On a 37.5 hour working week, the average non-teacher works a minimum of 1600 hours per year but more evenly distributed. Yet, there is an appreciation that this is a minimum, with many working 40 or 50 hour weeks. The reality then is most professions demand between 1600 and 2200 hours per year.

If a teacher was required to work 2200 hours per year but in 39 weeks then that would equate to, wait for it, an 11.5 hour working day!? That’s impossible, surely, because the teacher pay and conditions document quite clearly regulates for that and states that the 1265 hours must be, “allocated reasonably throughout those days in the school year”. So just 6 hours a day then?

But, “the case may be, a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the [their] professional duties” with an absolute prohibition of work, “on any Saturday, Sunday or public holiday unless their contract of employment expressly provides for this.”

The reality is that with long school holidays, the teacher’s working conditions are highly compressed and cause increased rates of stress, anxiety and attrition. Many teachers are working 2 and 3000 hour years, regularly packing in 12/14 hour days and then working at weekends as well and use the extended holiday period to recover from the experience.

Perhaps, just perhaps, having a standardised working day over a more evenly distributed working year, might combat this lunacy. If we are to protect the divide between work and home (and we should) then re-evaluating the working year may be necessary. Regulating and protecting a proper working day might be the starting point.

School holiday patterns were largely established by the urban professional classes, including the teachers, who, much like the lawyers and doctors of Victorian England, sought extended summer respite.

150 years on, the profession has radically changed but the structures that surround it remain the same.

“And therefore, unsurprisingly, if you ask people whether they feel that teachers are freer today than ever to inspire, whether they feel that employers are more attentive, responsive and considerate, whether they feel there is more time and space for family life, then you’ll find that the answer is a powerful NO.”

Robert Loe, Education Research Director, 2014

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