“No education system can be better than its teachers, and no teacher can perform at their best when they’re so tired they can’t think straight.”
So wrote education secretary Nicky Morgan (with Nick Clegg, who was deputy prime minister at the time) last February after the government had sifted through the 44,000 responses to the Workload Challenge. She admitted that far too many teachers were working far too hard, for far too long. “It’s simply not sustainable,” she said.
Almost one year later, the three government-appointed working groups are still looking for solutions to the biggest problems – marking, data management and planning and resources – and will report back in the spring.
In the meantime, workload is as big an issue as ever. Even Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw agreed this week, saying that teachers are becoming exhausted because they are expected to do “too many things”, being asked to act as “behaviour experts, playground patrollers and outreach workers."
If anyone had any doubts about the level of workload, teachers who came from overseas to plug recruitment gaps can put these to bed (after a few hours of deep marking, of course). Recruits from Canada and Australia are already packing their bags, complaining about England’s gruelling education system.
Where they worked eight to nine-and-a-half hour days in their home countries, over here they are clocking up 14 hours on a school day, plus a bundle of weekend work. “The demands on teachers at the basic level are massive,” said one (for the full report, see this week's edition of TES magazine).
It’s so bad that even the nation’s most resilient are failing to sign up for the Toughest Mudder of them all. Only 32 former military personnel have completed the Troops to Teachers course, out of just 41 recruited for the 180 places available in the first round. Subsequent recruitment rounds haven’t fared much better either.
The problem is that in one breath the government admits there is an unsustainable burden, and in the next blithely adds to it with its new wheezes to inject rigour and vigour into the system.
In secondary, there’s the simultaneous introduction of changes to GCSEs and A levels, Progress 8, the Prevent strategy, making Ebac compulsory, deregulating the pay system and bringing in performance pay – all masses of extra work.
In primary, the changes are seemingly endless. This year sees the new tougher Sats begin in Year 6, for which the reporting and assessment arrangements have been updated no fewer than 11 times since September. A new grammar, punctuation and spelling paper is about to land in Year 2. Meanwhile, levels have finally disappeared, leaving schools implementing their own systems for internal assessment. But these will not do for the statutory assessment, so the government came up with another system for that – which will last just 12 months. And next year, the government has already promised to look at changing the key stage 1 tests and introducing a new times table test.
There are of course things that can be done at local level to alleviate workload. But it’s hard for school leadership teams when they are constantly distracted by yet another initiative winging its way towards them.
Nicky Morgan was right last year: workload was unsustainable. It’s still unsustainable. Schools minister Nick Gibb was wrong last year: there was a crisis in recruitment. There is still a crisis. The teachers brought in from abroad to alleviate the latter have started to leave because of the former. Unless some serious solutions are delivered very soon, we could well be heading for catastrophe.
This is an article from the 22 January edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here