Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

A curious policy option – Robert Tennent & Keir Bloomer

The recent report by the OECD on Scottish education commented on the amount of their working week that teachers can be expected to be in contact with classes.  “Scotland is among the only OECD education systems…. in which teachers spend at least 50% of their statutory working time teaching.”  Unsurprisingly, the EIS has seized on this statement in order to intensify its campaign for a reduction in the hours of class contact.  At the same time, SNP manifesto commitments suggest that the Scottish Government will be prepared to go a considerable distance to meet this demand.  It is apparently willing to reduce contact hours from the present 22.5 per week to 21.  The EIS seeks a larger reduction to 20 although over a fairly extended timescale and in combination with a reduction in class sizes to 20.

The government party seems to accept without question that a case has been convincingly made for the reduction in teaching hours.  Yet, the OECD makes out no such case.  It notes that Scottish teachers spend a larger proportion of their working week teaching classes than most other OECD member states.  No conclusion is drawn from this.  OECD may believe that Scotland’s approach is misguided but, if so, it does not say so.  No evidence is produced to suggest that the educational experience of Scottish young people would be improved if the contact hours of teachers were to be shortened.  Interestingly, the only other comment the report offers on this subject – that Scotland is unusual in having the same number of non-contact hours at all stages of education rather than fewer in secondary than primary – has been ignored both by government and the EIS.  In this case it is not taken for granted that anything the OECD sees as exceptional must necessarily be bad.

The function of the EIS is to advance its members’ interest as it sees them.  Normally, for obvious reasons, it will seek to maintain that teachers’ interests and those of pupils coincide.  However, it is not incumbent on the EIS to demonstrate value for money or calculate the implications of meetings its proposals.  The obligations of government are, of course, rather different.  However, there is no indication that, before supporting a reduction in contact hours, the SNP carried out the kind of costings and policy option appraisals that might be expected of their government.

The position in the primary sector is relatively straightforward.  At present, pupils are taught for 25 hours a week but teachers are in contact with classes for 22.5 hours.  Therefore 2.5 hours of class time are provided by promoted staff or the use of additional, normally part-time, staff.  In simple terms, slightly more than 11 teachers are required to cover 10 classes.  Assuming that it is only the contact hours of teachers and not those of children that are to be reduced, that would rise to just under 12 if the government’s proposals were to be implemented.  This represents an increase in staffing of just under 8%.  To meet the EIS demands, the increase would be just under 14%.

The secondary situation is more complex because timetabling the delivery of a subject-based curriculum with some level of pupil choice necessarily entails some inefficiencies in the use of staff.  Ignoring many of the complications, the increase in staffing required would be around 8.7% for the Scottish Government proposals or 15.3% for the EIS version.

In recent decades much work has been done on timetabling to make most effective use of the precious resource of teacher time.  Both sets proposals would require significant change to existing good practice.  This could entail additional costs or sub-optimal educational approaches.  While it is incumbent on government to explore these implications in detail, for the purposes of this paper, the figures given above are used.

In round terms the two sets of proposals would require an increase of 4250 and 7500 teachers respectively. It is important to stress that these additional teachers would be required solely in order to reduce the time in which teachers are in contact with classes and not for any other purpose which might be thought desirable by parents such as reducing class sizes.

Setting aside the question of where these additional teachers might be found, there is the matter of cost.  Applying the average cost of an unpromoted teacher and allowing for on-costs such as National Insurance and employers’ superannuation costs, the figures come out at nearly £200m and over £300m for the two proposals.

An important question concerns how these amounts might be funded.  It is to be hoped that they would be met in their entirety by the Scottish Government.  Precedent suggests, however, that there would be some new money with the balance being met from hard-pressed local authority budgets which would be skewed in order to fund a priority that councils might well not share.

Indeed, the question of priorities is of paramount importance.  If there is really, say, £200m available to increase spending on schools, the key issue is not whether reducing teacher contact hours might do some good but whether it is the best possible use of the available money.  Another question, running in parallel, is who is best placed to make that decision.

OECD did not recommend a reduction in contact hours.  If they favour such a course of action, their reasons are unknown.  How would the additional non-contact time be used?  The recent history of Scottish education suggests the bulk of the time might well be consumed with bureaucracy, compliance with yet more accountability mechanisms and so forth.  Before substantial quantities of scare resources were committed to such a policy, the public would be entitled to a careful explanation of how genuine educational benefit would be realised.

If the decision on the use of additional resources is made by the Scottish Government, the inevitable outcome will be that the priority will be the same in every school.  There may be schools where more non-contact time for teachers might be the best way of improving pupils’ learning.  However, if headteachers were asked for their views, a wide range of possible priorities would emerge.  This is entirely appropriate.  The circumstances of schools vary widely.  Therefore, so too will their priorities for improvement.

It is worth noting that schools already have some discretion over how they use their resources – not as much as they should but still quite significant.  If there are schools which believe that their highest priority is the reduction of class-contact hours, there is nothing to stop them taking steps in that direction.  Schools deploy their resources in a wide range of ways;  class teaching, management time, support staff of various kinds, increasing the number of teaching sections through curriculum choice (secondary), purchase of materials and many more.  It would be perfectly possible to increase the share devoted to non-contact time by reducing the share allocated to one or more of these other purposes.  To take the obvious example, a fairly modest increase in class sizes would provide the funding needed.  Would teachers see this as a good trade-off?  Would parents?  If nobody sees the possible trade-offs as beneficial, how much value do they really attach to the proposed increase in non-contact time?

The OECD team made a number observations on ways in which Scotland’s educational approaches are, or are not, in line with typical practice elsewhere.  For instance, they indicate that “Compared to many other countries, Scottish teachers seem to rely much less on textbooks produced by educational publishers.”  Unlike their reference to non-contact time, this observation is accompanied by comment.  [The practice] “raises some questions about efficiency as developing high-quality instructional materials requires a lot of expertise, time and energy….”  Nobody has researched whether the substitution of teacher-produced materials for commercially and centrally produced ones is educationally beneficial nor whether it is cost-effective to use expensive teacher time to resource a huge over-production of duplicate materials.  A time when an extension of non-class-contact time is under discussion, might be the appropriate moment for such research.

Another possible use of extra non-contact time is in connection with assessment.  Many people would question whether an excessive amount of teacher time and effort is not already devoted to this purpose.  However, the EIS certainly (and possibly also the government) favours a reduction in the use of examinations and greater reliance on continuous assessment and teacher judgement.  Here is another possible motive for reducing class contact.

The truth is that we are not told the uses to which extra time might be devoted.  And yet, this is surely central to the justification of such a policy?

Finally, the timing is odd, if not perverse.  The educational establishment in Scotland has chosen to ignore or even deny the need for educational catch-up after the pandemic.  Most people, however, see the priority as being for young people to have more contact with teachers.  How strange, therefore, that we might instead devote a large, but uncalculated, sum of money to the pursuit of a policy which has not been seriously examined, for purposes which have not been explained but which will certainly reduce the amount of time that teachers spend teaching.

Robert Tennent played a major role in the early development of computing in schools.  As Quality Improvement Manager in East Renfrew promoted improvement through the analysis of Performance data, school organisation and curriculum delivery.

Keir Bloomer is a former director of education and chair of the Commission on School Reform.