Too busy to teach - why we've all got work to do

2nd March 2014 at 16:55



Because of sins in a previous life, I used to work for TGI Fridays. Being an international franchise, they had very particular views on workload: 'Time to lean?' one of their corporate aphorisms ran, 'Time to clean!' I'd pull the lever myself. Service industries taught me the meaning of graft – double shifts, back-to-back shifts, seven-day weeks, two weeks' holiday, constant grief and hustle, while wearing a cowboy hat and smiling. Some days it would have been kinder to just shoot me.


But there was a trade-off: it was unskilled, flexible work, the tips were good, and there was a clear correlation between effort invested and reward returned. There was no long-term commitment between shifts, and every day you started with a clean slate –  you'd 'sold your tickets' in restaurant speak. Plus, y'know: cowboy hats and booze. 


Not in schools. A while back I wrote a piece about two elephants in the classroom – major issues that had enormous impact on the efficiency of teaching and learning in schools but which were in a fundamentally dysfunctional state nationally, and usually ignored. Behaviour was one (read it here), and workload is the second, equally ugly sister.


In essence, we have too much to do to do our jobs properly. I must qualify this with the admission that I am (*stands up, faces semi-circle*) a workaholic. I work full time at a secondary school, run revision classes, manage a faculty on an almost full teaching timetable, run a research conference organisation, blog here twice a week, run a behaviour forum, a TES Behaviour Twitter account and write books. Clearly, I am a troubled man. But I really, really like being busy. And my level of occupation isn't unusual in schools. I see many, many people working as much and as hard – and harder.


So I'm not surprised when the latest workload survey by the DfE of teaching in the UK confirms how busy we are. Here are some summary findings: 

(1,004 teachers sampled)

  • On average, all school teachers report working over 50 hours per week, with primary and secondary school head teachers reporting more than 60 hours.
  • Classroom teachers in most school types report teaching 19 to 20 hours a week.
  • Teachers of all types work around 12 hours a week outside what might be regarded as their normal working week.
  • Non-teaching pupil or parent contact made up between 10 per cent  and 14 per cent of a classroom teacher’s workload and slightly more than that for headteachers in secondary schools (16 per cent).
  • The most common reasons given to explain the increase in unnecessary and bureaucratic tasks were preparation for an Ofsted inspection and an increase in forms and paperwork
  • Across all areas two common themes emerged, which were duplication and the level of detail required in certain circumstances. In particular duplication was referred to in terms of paper work, marking and recording pupil progress and data analysis, reporting and evidence gathering. The level of detail was considered by teachers to be unnecessary...
  • 30 per cent felt that spending more time discussing work with individual pupils ...would improve the quality of teaching and pupil learning. Just over a quarter selected one-to-one and small group teaching (28 per cent), while a quarter each chose collaborative planning with colleagues (26 per cent) and exploring and selecting resources
  • Slightly more than a third of heads (36 per cent) said observing colleagues teaching would be one of the three things that would improve the quality of teaching and pupil learning, and a similar proportion said observing good practice in other schools (32 per cent).

I think a lot of this will be as much of a surprise to those working in schools as a punch line in Miranda. I don't know a single teacher that doesn't feel they're constantly chasing their tail from kick-off to final whistle and beyond. Not one. Here are some reasons:


1. Unrealistic expectations: take marking (please*). Take a humanities teacher on 25 lessons per week. They could be seeing around 300-360 students over 12 or so classes, easy. How long does it take to mark a book? Physically, to open it, find the work. Read it. Add spelling and grammar suggestions and corrections. Write formative comments – two kisses and a wish (or a **** sandwich, as my mentor used to call it) that are meaningful. Grade or level it. Circle any graffiti. Record your data. Scan the class work in case it needs any interventions. Do the same for that. If you can do that in 5 minutes for each book, you're a goddamn machine. Now do that for 300 students. Mr Calculator tells me that's 1500 minutes – assuming no time lost moving from book to book – 25 hours.


That's assuming a weekly return rate. Five extra hours every working day. Make the return every fortnight and that drops to a generous 2.5 hours of marking every day. Is that feasible? It's possible – if you stay until 6 every day or get in at 6:30... And you do nothing else at all. No planning. No meetings. No tutorial help. No mentoring. No clubs.


And that assumes a five-minute turnaround. Factor in essays, KS4 and 5, and you start to get some unbelievable commitments to teacher time expected. So why do schools expect this? Because...


2. Feather-headed management. The higher you go, the less contact time you have. Time can be fluid or fixed. Fixed means you don't have a choice what you do and when – like teaching. Fluid time is when you might still have lots to do, but autonomy over what order and when. As promotions stiffen the salary, fluid time increases, and fixed demands recede. It's the work of a moment to ask staff to do something that often takes weeks to do. And that creates a dangerous temptation for people with responsibility. I was once asked in a previous school in a corridor, while walking, if I could "just pick up a double lesson for a term" by someone who wasn't even looking at me. I had the cojones to say no, but it isn't easy. 


3. Mission creep. New initiatives and projects accrue daily. Every time the regime changes – at school, in your department, at the Department for Education, new and essential demands are made. Frequently no one remembers to turn off the tap of the old ones. That's why there are still sad souls wandering around your school right now wondering who the G&T coordinator is and where they can get APP updates, like Japanese soldiers refusing to surrender when the Second World War ended. 


4. The rise of big data. RAISE online and FFT are now the new gods of education. Hate it or really hate it, that's the way things stand. Despite the fact that Dylan Wiliam – father of AfL – specifically intended levels not to be used for individual pieces of work, and not in sub-levels, that's what we've got. Despite the fact that FFT specifically say that their data is across a cohort and not targets, that's what they become. In an attempt to bottle lightning, we've created a pseudo-system that believes it has metrified the expectations and capability of students. It hasn't, but because it is needed, it has been created. This is tragic. Just as tragic, is the system that demands we track and assess and analyse pupils against this. I don't know why we aren't out on the streets with pitchforks and flaming torches about this, yet we aren't. Before, you could be asked to know your student. Now, your student has been assimilated into the Matrix. It's like Tron, and RAISE is the CPU.


Teaching is an enormously altruistic profession. It attracts, by its very nature, people who want to build careers on building people. We have it in us to step up, turn up, and go extra miles. We frequently do things because they need to be done, not because we are contracted to. But when an institution expects the extra mile as standard, then it ceases to be volunteered and is instead dragged from the agent contractually, by which point you can start waving goodbye to altruism. Watch this space – if teaching, which is still an incredible job that I'd recommend to anyone with heart and courage and brains, maintains this level of expectation, expect staff to start treating the job as a contract rather than a sacred mission or duty.


Good managers of people know about opportunity cost: what can't be done if I ask for this to be done? Bad managers appear to think teachers work in the Tardis. Right now, teachers are the goose that laid the golden egg – and there's an arm so far up our collective duodenum it's tickling our epiglottis. There are no more eggs up there. Lay your own goddamn eggs.





* © Les Dawson