It was no surprise that Damian Hinds made no mention of teachers’ workload in his main speech at the Conservative Party conference. It’s the job of the politician to be all things to all people, to say what people want to hear. That’s not necessarily to accuse him of insincerity or even lack of goodwill towards teachers, but it is to recognise his priorities. Therefore, it’s fine to tell heads that he trusts them at their union meeting; he may be sympathetic about workload at a fringe event; but it’s clear that he’s making no promises about the degree of support he will give.
When Damian Hinds admits that he can’t do as much about workload as teachers may expect, he’s echoing his predecessor. Justine Greening also saw the intractability of excessive workload. And there seems to be no real let-up, especially as extra sessions for “revision” and “catch-up” to help cover the “reformed specifications” in some schools are adding as much as three extra hours of teaching a fortnight to the burden; possibly up to 40 hours of additional tuition a year. It turns out that adding content requires more teaching time for assimilation and practice than can be provided in the two years of key stage 4.
The ongoing research and outreach programme from the Department for Education has many powerful messages about the benefits of redressing the balance of effort between teacher and student. If schools were willing actually to take up the DfE's many strategies, they could dramatically reduce teachers' workload. But has the education secretary the time to allow these initiatives to work in the face of falling recruitment and retention?
Teaching, as a career, needs to compete with other graduate professions which can offer starting salaries as high as £38,000. It’s sobering to realise that £38,000 is also the salary at the top of the teaching scale for classroom teachers with years of experience behind them.
The much-publicised 3.5 per cent pay rise targeted at early and mid-career teachers might have had some impact, were it not for the ongoing dispute about where the funds are going to come from. This rather conservative pay reward might have been acceptable had there been a reduction in working hours to maintain a fair ratio between hours expended and money coming in. So with no more money on the table, can Damian Hinds do anything to take excessive hours off?
Limit the hours in the teachers' contract
Well, as it turns out, there might just be one course of action open to him. If he looks back far enough to the era of Lord Baker, he will see that actually the secretary of state for education can directly intervene in matters of contractual hours and obligations. In 1987 the now infamous time clause came into existence: 1,265 hours of "directed time" across 190 days, with five more days of former holiday spread across the year and requisitioned for Inset.
It isn’t the clear guidelines about hours that have caused most problems, but the open-ended element in the final paragraph outlining the extent of teachers’ obligations. I quote it here in full:
"A teacher shall, in addition to the requirements set out in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) above, work such additional hours as may be needed to enable him to discharge effectively his professional duties, including, in particular the marking of pupils' work, the writing of reports on pupils and the preparation of lessons, teaching material and teaching programmes. The amount of time required for this purpose beyond the 1,265 hours referred to in subparagraph (b) and the times outside the 1,265 specified hours at which duties shall be performed shall not be defined by the employer but shall depend upon the work needed to discharge the teacher’s duties."
The contract leaves in the hands of the employers unlimited hours. Who decides how much input from the teachers is needed to fulfil the marking, preparation and planning and who decides what form these essential activities should take? The times may not be specified – nor the place where the duties take place – but monitoring and inspection processes, in combination with increased competitive pressures on schools via league tables, have inflated each process.
The DfE-funded research leads to a very welcome debate about pedagogy, but other forms of pressure are needed.
If schools have financial budgetary constraints, then shouldn’t they also have time constraints? The most welcome intervention that Damian Hinds could make would be to place limits on the invisible workload by addressing the unquantified duties. There may be many ways of doing this, perhaps by deciding on a fair ratio of hours spent on preparation, marking, planning and data input to pupils taught or lessons delivered on the timetable. It would be easy then for governors and trusts to monitor workload.
The time spent on extracurricular, event attendance, contact with parents and trip organisation can then be absorbed into the 1,265.
Practically, a change to the 1987 Act would be a desirable outcome that can then provide much-needed clarity and limits. Politically, it would be very difficult for a Conservative secretary of state for education to step in to improve the working conditions as a benevolent architect of change. The over-riding incentive to do so is that none of the shiny conference promises can happen without a stable and well-resourced profession.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a secondary school in the south of England and a member of the National Association for the Teaching of English post-16 committee.