Can we fix our dysfunctional marriage to government?

When government is behaving like a bullying Victorian husband, it's up to teachers to make a stand, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Coronavirus: The pandemic has highlighted the dysfunctional relationship between government and teachers, says Yvonne Williams

We appear to have plumbed new depths in the dysfunctional relationship between teachers and government

It isn’t just the pay freeze or the government directive that schools are not allowed to operate rotas, regardless of the circumstances. 

It isn’t just the fact that if schools operate right up to 18 December, then some staff and pupils could have their Christmas wrecked by having to self-isolate, because someone in their bubble has tested positive. (Or even, if they are unlucky enough, by contracting Covid themselves.) 

Over the past nine months, we’ve got used to the many inflated promises from government, which burst like Covid bubbles when it comes to the reality. We’ve become accustomed to the government ministers, like the generals in the First World War, directing from well behind the lines, while clinically vulnerable teachers are marshalled back into the classroom.

Coronavirus: Illuminating the chasm between government and teachers

If it were simply the case that all of these problems were attributable to the current global emergency, the profession’s tolerance might not be stretched beyond breaking point. But, like a malevolent searchlight, the pandemic is mercilessly illuminating the ever-widening cracks in communications between government and the teaching profession. Longstanding dissatisfactions have become acute grievances, which cumulatively reinforce one another.

If we didn’t know that we were in a dysfunctional relationship before, we certainly do now. The government, like the worst kind of Victorian husband, hasn’t let up on the micromanagement. As if schools didn’t have enough to do, what with tracking and tracing contacts of the pupils who test positive, and as if there were not enough stress in keeping staff and pupils safe this term, there is the spectre of Ofsted making a very unwelcome return

It’s hardly surprising that Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, sees “a growing air of militancy in our schools”. Any illusion of independence for schools and academies has been quickly dispelled, even though leaders in areas like the North West and West Yorkshire know the situation on the ground far better than our London-centric government.

And, to wrap it all up, like an unwelcome Christmas parcel from an estranged relative, there’s the hardly veiled threat (or justification, if you will) for the pay freeze from chancellor Rishi Sunak. Apparently, he froze teachers’ pay to save jobs. Yes, really.

To be fair, the chancellor did use the word “paused” for the pay rise. But, having weathered numerous pay freezes over the past decade, teachers cannot be confident that the purse strings will be loosened any time soon. In the short term, Rishi Sunak may get away with it, but he shouldn’t overlook the future consequences of current and historical mismanagement of teachers and their workload.

In its latest report (the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020), the Education Support charity says that the number of teachers working more than 51 hours a week has increased for the third year in a row. And it’s not just the chore-load, but the accountability framework behind it that has cost schools their experienced staff.

How do teachers redress the balance?

The existing power dynamic favours a government that remains unquestioned and unchallenged: one that’s long on broken promises and excessive prying into our classrooms and curriculum. But how do teachers redress the balance, especially when there is no energy to spare from this term’s demands?

Perhaps the answer lies less in what we should do and more in what we should not. The Covid crisis – and the consequent economic problems – is causing the government to reassess its financial resources. It should also prompt teachers and their unions to re-evaluate the expenditure of human time and effort. For far too long, the government has been living well beyond its means in the public sector, and its credit is more than overstretched. 

We could talk in terms of militancy. But it isn’t the traditional industrial action that the profession should consider. Wouldn’t it be better to fight fire with fire? Teachers are overworked on tasks that are often not directly related to educational outcomes, and shortchanged on job satisfaction. It makes sense to slash the services that are unproductive.

Teachers wouldn’t abandon their pupils, nor would they neglect the teaching, lesson planning and appropriate amount of assessment. But the creeping burden of data entry and over-intricate planning and marking could easily be slashed. 

Rationing the endless reports to stakeholders might disappoint governors, parents and overseers in trusts and local authorities, but these add-ons take up too much time. Surely there must be a way to abbreviate the content and reduce the frequency. 

Tackling the excessive email traffic and streamlining communication would make those who send out endless missives think twice about the importance of their demands. There has never been a direct correlation between volume of email and efficacy of communication.

Displays, the monster time-devourers, are not actually that conducive to learning; too often they serve as a distraction for pupils. The only benefit of displays is to market schools and departments. Surely by now the public is sufficiently savvy to see beneath the glossy planet-threatening laminated surface.

As long ago as 2003, there was an agreement (“Raising standards and tackling workload: a national agreement”) between teaching unions and the Department for Education and Skills (as it then was) to free teachers from numerous non-teaching tasks.

Wouldn’t it be to everyone’s benefit to ditch the gold-plating and get back to basics? Teachers would get back their time; they and their pupils would be more productively employed; morale would go up.

And, although the government would still get far more than it pays for, the happiness and wellbeing quotient in schools might rise enough to enable us all to cope with whatever this winter has to throw at us. 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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