4.21 and other myths of the schoolyard

AEU NT Vice-President Stephen Pelizzo clears up the confusion about the rules and agreements covering teachers’ hours of work

The union has received numerous enquiries of late about when teachers are allowed to finish work and go home for the day. Often the query is based on a directive teachers have received from their principal that they need to be at work until an arbitrary time such as 4.21pm.

Most often this is a result of a supervisor’s inexperience or lack of knowledge of basic teacher working conditions. In one way, there is no simple answer as to what hours classroom teachers are required to work, so I’ll try to be comprehensive.

Span of hours does not apply

To go back more than 25 years ago, teachers had an Award. That award specified that teachers did not have a “span of hours” like most other public servants. (And at the insistence of the AEU NT, this has also been acknowledged in the NT Public Sector Modern Award finalised this year.)

The acknowledgment that teachers did not have a span of hours had several meanings. Firstly, that teachers didn’t work any specific times as schools’ timetables varied immensely (in the NT at that time there were public schools that started at 6.30am and others that didn’t commence until 8.50am), so work on camps, after school, on weekends and so on could not be claimed as over time or time off in lieu.

It also meant that teachers could be expected to work out of usual hours, within reason. It did specify that face-to-face teaching time was 26 hours and 40 minutes per week. It also allowed for substantial stand down periods, which are not holidays, and again are mainly about students’ welfare, but end up being periods of recuperation for teachers as well. That is, any requirements for school-based teachers to work in a stand down period needs to be justified (which has hardly ever happened).

In 1991 the 91/38 memo was issued by the then Secretary of the Department of Education, Geoff Spring, making many specific references to teaching loads, both in time and student numbers. Key to this was a distinction between primary/ secondary and senior staff loads. While never endorsed by this union, so carrying negligible industrial legal weight, over time it became accepted as a standard. This endorsed an 80% load for secondary teachers which again, has carried on largely through to today.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s the AEU NT had considerable success in gaining additional (or in primary teachers’ cases, initial) non-contact time.

Teacher Responsibilities Guide

The most recent significant guide to working conditions was the Teacher Responsibility Guide (TRG) introduced five years ago. Being an addendum to teachers’ Enterprise Agreement it’s not in the EA proper so its legal power is somewhat questionable. However, both the Department of Education and the AEU NT would often refer to this as the most definitive source of advice about working hours and conditions.

So here are some things to consider for a classroom teacher’s time work load: a full face-to-face teaching load for a primary classroom teacher is 26 hours and 40 minutes per week, less three hours non-contact time (so 23 hours and 40 minutes). This includes time supervising students (eating lunch) but not playground duties, which are limited to a “reasonable” number and duration (rule of thumb 3 x 20 minutes per week), or lunch or recess breaks.

The usual 8.00 to 4.21 does not apply as teachers are not eligible for a full free hour for lunch, nor a paid 10 minute morning tea, nor for overtime nor flexitime (TOIL). So if someone starts to use this term, make sure they are covering those other bases. I know of no reference anywhere to 3.21. It’s also worth noting that 4.21 presumes a start no earlier than 8am, whereas we know that in practice many teachers commence work well before 8am to prepare for classes and carry out other duties.

This is, of course, all dependent on the school’s actual timetable. You can break this down into daily figures, but that is not common practice.

Non-contact time

Non-contact time (NCT) is not required to occur in each given week, but the common expectation is that it will be delivered over a fortnight, or at worst a term (10 week) period. Missing out on NCT due to public holidays, leave, Sorry Days and other interruptions are bad luck, it’s just what happens and there is no redress. This is not free time, and teachers are expected to use it to conduct work related duties, using their professional judgement.

The balance over supervisors directing activities or duties in this time has never really been addressed and is currently a contentious area in many schools, with a number of members advising us that management have tried to schedule regular meetings during their NCT.

It is custom and practice that teachers are expected to be on deck 10 minutes before and half an hour after school class times; the first is codified in the TRG but the second is not written down anywhere, and this is what has led to some schools putting in place arbitrary rules about finishing times.

The union wrote to the Commissioner for Public Employment, Craig Allen, last year seeking clarification on this issue. He responded as follows:

Hours of work provisions are in the Teacher Responsibilities—a Guide for Teachers and School Leaders in NT Government Schools. It covers a range of matters including contact hours, non-contact hours and other duties such as staff meetings etc. There isn’t a direct a span of hours for teachers in schools given the nature of their work and there is an expectation that teachers are available for other duties, such as attending staff meetings and parent teacher interviews outside school operational hours, as required. Provided a teacher is available to teach his or her allocated classes and perform other duties during school operational hours, they are able to quit the campus when students are discharged for the day.

Teachers required to remain at school until 4.21pm may be sound ; however, I would need to be apprised of the specific circumstances of the situation. For example, the occasional request for teachers to stay back until 4.21pm to attend a staff meeting or other work-related activity would be reasonable, and I suggest within the responsibilities guide. On the other hand, a principal insisting on teaching staff remaining on campus until 4.21pm for no reason may be unreasonable.

Thus requiring teachers to remain on site at the end of the school day should be based on reasonable grounds and be subject to consultation.

There are some specific instances where teachers may be required to remain at school. The TRG specifies that teachers are required to attend one after school staff meeting or equivalent of approximately one hour once per week, and once per semester make themselves available for parent teacher interviews out of hours. More can happen, but only with real consultation.

Why has this unique set of arrangements developed? Well it suits both the union and the employer as it allows immense flexibility in how work requirements are met. Both sides know that the overwhelming majority of teachers work much far more than the standard 36 hours and 45 minutes for which other public servants are paid.

Note that for administrative purposes only, 7 hours and 21 minutes per day apply for a number of matters, accrual and use of Personal and Recreation leave and for paying relief teachers it is deemed that they have a six hour work day.

DoE’s Human Resources division has recently confirmed to the union its view that: 

“…teachers are not employed for a usual 8-4.21 work day… for any future concerns regarding hours of work in individual schools we will refer to the Teachers Responsibilities Guide and negotiate issues in conjunction with the needs of the school”.

If you feel that these guidelines are not being followed in your school, we advise you to contact the union for advice.