Proposed four-day working week for primary education under fire

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In late May 1999, the VOO parents' organisation proposed implementing a four-day working week in Dutch primary education as the only plausible way to reduce working time in the sector. The issue of how to cope with ongoing working time cuts at a time of teacher shortages has caused concern in parliament, while one parents' association has unsuccessfully challenged in the courts a school's decision to introduce a four-day week every other week.

At the end of May 1999, the Public Education Association (Vereniging van het Openbaar Onderwijs, VOO), a parents' organisation, proposed the implementation of a four-day working week as the only plausible way to reduce working time in the primary education sector to a 36-hour working week, as previously agreed. The trade unions have reconciled themselves to the proposal, due to the absence of any workable alternatives. Primary education - for children aged four to 12 years - continues to suffer from capacity utilisation problems dating from the government's previous term in office. The then Minister of Education established a scheme whereby unemployed teachers were brought in to fill the gaps created by reduced working time in primary education. Working time reduction also served as a means to cut costs since schools were provided with only 80% of a full teacher's salary for replacement staff.

Despite the difficulties of formulating arrangements, this solution appeared to work well during the teacher surplus that characterised primary education sector up until recently. However, teachers are now outnumbered by vacancies, leaving schools unable to find substitutes. Complaints about continually mounting work pressure were brought before the Lower House of parliament in 1998, but neither the Minister of Education nor the social partners explored other possible solutions during the 1999 collective bargaining round. The social partners rejected proposals to solve problems related to working time reduction in a different manner, by allowing for the accumulation of leave or expanding part-time job appointments. The Lower House requested the Minister of Education to postpone the implementation of working time cuts in the primary education sector for a two-year period.

In the meantime, parents have taken action and formed associations to stop collective agreements from determining the structure of education. A first step was a recent case brought to court to challenge a decision made by one school to shorten the working week by one day every other week. Under the plan, as of September 1999, lessons will last longer and breaks will be shortened in order to cover the same amount of material during the remaining nine days a fortnight. This decision will disrupt the lives of working parents and especially lone parents. The school board claimed that it is obliged by law to provide sufficient education, but does not bear any responsibility for personal inconvenience cause to parents. Parents raised the issue of whether a four-day working week would allow for responsible teaching of the curriculum. The court decided in favour of the school board, finding that the school was in compliance with the law, as it was able to offer sufficient education, and was not responsible for the consequences of its decision on parents' private lives.

Parents at some schools in the Netherlands already pay for the fifth day of education in a week. The Lower House considers this an objectionable form of educational privilege and aims to put an end to it as soon as possible. After all, legislation in the Netherlands guarantees everyone access to equal education at the various levels.

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