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It’s time schools clocked teachers’ working hours

Just as we measure how much money schools spend, it’s time we started to take account of how long teachers spend on and in work, says Andrew Foster

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It’s never been this bad.” “We’re literally at breaking point.” “Something has to be done about workload, or there won’t be any teachers left.” Anyone who spends time in staffrooms is likely to have heard sentiments such as these.

I know of colleagues who have had keys cut for the front gates as they regularly arrive at school before the caretaker opens up at 6am; newly qualified teachers who feel a Margaret Thatcher-like sleep regime is the only way to keep their heads above water; and experienced teachers who resorted to going down to a 0.8 timetable so that each week they have a 24-hour respite to catch up on marking and admin.

When trained professionals feel obliged to give five days’ work for four days’ pay, it is fair to surmise that there is an issue to address. Education secretary Damian Hinds acknowledged the problem in his speech at this year’s Association of School and College Leaders annual conference.

“Too many of our teachers and our school leaders are working too long hours,” he said, “and on non-teaching tasks that are not helping children to learn.”

If we want a significant change in outcome, then we need a significant change in process.

Currently, there is a tendency to treat teacher time as if it were elastic. Staff are lauded for “going the extra mile”, giving up evenings, weekend and holidays to run interventions, largely for examination groups. Teachers regularly complain of having to complete administrative tasks they feel result in limited – if any – benefit to pupils.

We often pay insufficient attention to the fact that teachers are working through breaks, into the evenings, and during days they are not contracted to do so – and that this comes at a cost. We do not do this where other professions are concerned. Coach drivers and pilots have incredibly strict limitations on the hours that they can work. For decades, it has been recognised that to do otherwise puts lives at risk.

Teachers may not often hold the immediate survival of their pupils in their hands. But if they are regularly, or even occasionally, getting insufficient sleep, and if they are starting work before 7am and finishing after 7pm, with inadequate breaks disrupted by duties, it is a nonsense to suggest that their performance will be anywhere near optimal.

Their presentation will be poorer, their interactions with pupils less well-considered, their progress as professionals slowed if not stopped dead. Lives are not lost but life chances will be impacted.

Every minute counts

We would not dream of being so cavalier with a school’s budget. All expenses must be accounted for, as any teacher who has searched cagoule pockets and handbag compartments for an elusive receipt will know. The disparity between how we think of money and how we think of time is the issue.

As per the statutory guidance on teachers’ pay and conditions, schools in England and Wales may direct up to 1,265 hours of each member of staff’s time over 195 days each year. The Department for Education’s 2016 survey suggested that the average weekly total worked was 54.4 hours. This means that, in a school with one hundred teaching staff, in effect more than 85,000 worked hours each year are taking place off the books.

What if the intended, and then the actual demands being made upon teachers’ time were calculated, recorded and audited by administrative staff, in a similar fashion to the school’s monetary outgoings? A light-touch means of documenting teachers’ hours would give a clearer and more honest picture for everyone involved.

This course of action would present dangers. There would be justifiable fears about such a system reducing teachers’ scope for autonomy, increasing the ability of senior leadership teams to dictate what must be done.

Dan McCarthy, president of the NASUWT teachers’ union, spoke at its annual conference about the damage that “surveillance...not positive and developmental, but punitive and crushing” has done. And as the process itself would necessarily involve teachers, it may be perceived by many as yet another addition to the workload.

Disagreement would likely arise over how long a task should and actually does take to complete. Cautious and incremental introduction with the full involvement of teachers and the unions would be required to make such a system a success.

This effort would be worthwhile because the potential benefits are myriad. Applicants could see what a school required of them in and out of the classroom, and how much of their time was genuinely their own.

Disputes between leadership and staff would have a better frame of reference and a better means for resolution. New teachers would more quickly gain understanding of how to fit the job into their lives. Policies that classroom teachers suspect to be significantly increasing workload for little benefit could be put to the test. And the intervention arms race around examinations could be tracked, and perhaps halted and reversed.

Senior leaders could be forgiven for seeing such a move as tying their hands. However, they would have a new means of demonstrating to colleagues that the initiatives they wish to introduce have been planned carefully against objective measures, bearing a good chance of increasing learning and making their lives easier.

Furthermore, it could potentially help with managing their own workload, estimated at an average of 62 and 60 hours per week, for secondary and primary respectively, according to the DfE survey. And rather than living and dying by examination results alone, they may have a new metric by which Ofsted and others might measure their performance.

A new office next to the bursary? A published series of accounts, in days, hours and minutes? It may seem alien now, but what is currently familiar is not working.

Everyone plays differently when someone’s keeping the score. It’s time we kept the score on teachers’ hours.

Andrew Foster is head of education at the Tougher Minds consultancy