Why we can't allow the school day to be lengthened

Teachers need to protect our work-life balance – the ever-accelerating hamster wheel helps no one, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Covid and schools: Why teachers can't allow a longer school day or cuts to holidays in the name of catch-up

In spite of all the gruelling hard work that teachers have put in during the Covid emergency, there is to be no respite, and certainly no reward. 

It beggars belief (at least for the normal person) that the government should still be entertaining the idea of adding a few hours here and there to an already punitive workload, in order to implement its latest face-saving agenda for so-called catch-up.

William Stewart expertly outlines the imbalance of power that exhausted teachers face if they have the energy to resist. It makes for more than sobering reading to realise (if we didn’t already know it) that unions are weaker now than they were 40 years ago. There is no knight in shining armour to ride in and save teachers from a government raid on their family and leisure time. 

Nevertheless, classroom practitioners need to protect their work-life balance now, and they must not succumb to pressure to shorten any of their holidays – or even restructure the school year.

There should be no concession to attempts to “trial” any new arrangements. This is not the time for flexibility. The minute a precedent is set, it is set in stone – unless it is something that favours classroom professionals, obviously.

Covid catch-up: The danger of lengthening the school day

Teachers already work with pupils face-to-face far longer than their timetables indicate. After-school revision, weekend extra help, not to mention holiday classes – all these already exist. It would be hard to shoehorn in any more. Many teachers are now required by contract to provide extracurricular clubs. Often these “extras” are not counted in the 1,265 hours of directed time, but result from management pressure to enforce extra hours.

The virtue-signallers who advertise their sacrifice of free hours for the benefit of their pupils don’t help their colleagues. The extra time offered by such teachers becomes a lever to extract more work from others. The excuse for this time-banditry? The school needs to hold its place in the league table, to have a favourable Ofsted report… 

Surely it’s time to step back and ask exactly whose interest is being served when the driving incentive seems to be to satisfy external agencies and maintain a place in the league tables. 

Competition is not driving up standards: it’s simply accelerating the hamster wheel. Pupils and teachers work harder, but in the end the results are dictated by a normal distribution curve, which dictates that a third of each GCSE cohort receives less than a grade 4 and historic shares of top-to-middle grades are preserved. 

Will the pupils subjected to “catch-up” learn any more or any better? Or will they be route-marched wearily through the same old assessment objectives and exam-cramming? Will the catch-up curriculum be any more life-enhancing when the main intent will be to prepare pupils for the exams that they won’t take for another few years – and which may, in any case, change as a new education secretary seeks to make their mark?

Nor is it in the interest of pupils or schools to place teachers under any more stress. At present, there are more than enough teachers waiting in the wings, thanks to the pandemic and the economic fallout. 

But they’ll be needed. We’ve done nothing to address the current retention crisis and the prospect of another year like the past two – only more labour-intensive – will serve to demoralise teachers further with all the consequent damage for education in the near future. What a waste of lives and careers. 

Retention: We must not allow a haemorrhage of teachers

It’s not in the long-term interest of schools to allow the haemorrhage of teachers. Recruitment and training are costly, as is the need to use an endless string of supply teachers. Children need the stability of the same faces each day and the continuity of lessons – not a fragmentation caused by constant changes of personnel. 

Teachers may find it embarrassing to fight for themselves; they may hate being selfish about protecting their own quality of life; but they do need to fight for education itself and for their pupils’ right to continuity. 

Teachers also need to recognise that they are in their roles for the long run. Time now is worth more than the pay-off of the future. Long-term rewards are dwindling.

Looking to the future, it’s more than likely that pensionable age will rise and pension pots will be raided by a government eager to pay back its borrowings. For too long pensions have been portrayed as a perk of the job rather than the pay deferral and pay sacrifice that they really are. 

Nor is there much public support for a pay rise for teachers – which is why it’s been so easy for education secretary Gavin Williamson to institute the pay “pause”.

In any case, having a favourable public image is never going to weigh heavily in industrial relations. We have only to look outside teaching to see the meagre – insulting – 1 per cent pay offer to the medics who were not long ago NHS heroes to know how little self-sacrifice counts. And there’s the alarming example of British Gas workers who have been fired and rehired on contracts that extort more hours from them. 

The general public has never had much sympathy with teachers’ complaints about workload – haven’t they got that lovely long summer break? But holidays, once shortened, are easier to erode, which makes teacher burnout even more of a risk.

The future looks bleak in the current climate, which is why teachers must fight to make their current working lives happier. The only people to benefit from the longer hours culture are the politicians using education as a pawn in their larger career games, to deflect attention from the reasons why any learning deficit exists in the first place. 

Teachers and pupils should not be required to compensate for the government’s inept handling of laptop procurement and widespread digital poverty. 

The extension of school days and reduction of holidays may sound good to the desperate. In practice, it is likely to prove counterproductive, as children watch their teachers leave and their childhoods slip away.

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom, and 22 years as a head of English. 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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