'Accountability is the noose strangling teaching'

In a letter to the education secretary, Yvonne Williams says changes to accountability are vital for teacher wellbeing

Accountability bound

Dear Mr Hinds,

The setting up of an expert panel to tackle the problems of teachers’ mental health is both laudable and long overdue. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recognises, there have always been stressors associated with the job and many of us have witnessed the consequences for colleagues.

But I can’t help feeling that you are dealing with the problem from the wrong end. The danger with the focus on wellbeing is that it will either be tackled as a palliative to treat symptoms or it will be too easily assumed that the causes of stress and the reactions to pressure are individual. The first is a reactive approach, often too late; the second allows us all to offload responsibility on to the individual teacher to seek help and follow medical advice. 

Mental health in the workplace is not treated on equal terms with physical health, largely because the symptoms are so hard to pin down and there may be multiple causes. Therefore the onus is not fully on the workplace management to take steps to tackle the reasons for their staff’s ill-health. It’s the Cinderella of the health and safety remit.

Quite rightly, there is a lot of training to ensure that teachers don’t suffer from back injuries associated with lifting heavy loads in the wrong way and there are strict guidelines to prevent some kinds of lifting completely. The training and guidelines are revisited regularly and managers are required to show that this has been done. No one wants the consequences of poor lifting of excessively heavy loads on the individual or the organisation. Quite rightly, every effort is made to avoid unnecessary suffering. 

Perhaps we should transfer the principles of the lifting strand of the H&S remit to the load that teachers carry, not just in terms of workload and time taken. Although that is onerous and stressful enough, the mental toll it takes when there are not enough rest periods in the day is exacerbated by the pressure imposed to achieve results.

The most insidious sentence in the rhetoric of politicians and pressure groups is that “teachers must be held to account”. This pernicious echo from the era of Woodhead and Wilshaw is the noose that is strangling the profession. Mr Hinds, you have demonstrated your intention to cut workload, but so far the measures taken and the toolkit just published don’t go to the heart of the problem. Persuasion and good advice are lightweights in the imbalance between the bottom-line of Progress 8 scores and good academic practice.

Accountability and teacher workload

In the run-up to GCSE and A-level examinations, this imperative is beyond intense. Some schools have been requiring staff to run “revision periods” in their lunchtimes one week and after school the next for each GCSE group they teach. Registers are taken. Thus a number of teachers in Britain routinely teach longer hours than their international counterparts. Add to that compulsory revision sessions in holidays and at weekends, and it’s easy to see how resentment and stress build up from the sheer relentlessness of the routine. This additional load is onerous, especially when reinforced by the accountability framework which seems to be the justification for all the extra work piled on to teachers to achieve results.

Teachers are particularly vulnerable in this era more than in any other because, Atlas-like, they carry the burden of the academy structures on their shoulders; they have more bosses to whom they are “accountable” than ever before. The Govian “reforms” increased government control of education by instituting qualifications that are arguably too large to be taught in the curriculum time supposedly available – otherwise, why are so many out-of-school sessions apparently necessary? The multi-academy trusts set up have migrated power to the centre of these bodies and distributed blame to the edges of the hub – individual teachers in the classroom. It’s impossible for teachers to refuse to do the extras because the Act that still largely governs teachers’ working conditions gives all the rights to employers. If the organisation believes that imposing extra work is “reasonable” then there is no legal defence against any such imposition.

It could be argued that the little extras don’t actually improve the experience of education for pupils and actually make teaching inefficient. The more that is offered outside school, the less responsibility pupils have to take for their own progress – it’s the responsibility of the teacher to teach but not necessarily for the pupil to learn.

So how to proceed? If the wellbeing panel can point the way to more proactive, benevolent management practice, perhaps that will inspire teachers at all stages of their careers to remain in their classrooms.  But we need leaders at the very top to take their responsibility for the welfare of all employees much more seriously. Having a senior leader responsible for workload and wellbeing is a good start. The Co-Op Academies Trust is a shining example in this respect. Most of all, the root cause of the current malaise – the accountability framework and its punitive effects – needs to be dismantled.

Yvonne Williams,
 Head of English and drama in a secondary school in the south of England

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