How a constant sense of threat feeds teacher workload

The problem of teacher workload is less about hours worked, and more about excessive accountability and surveillance, says Bernard Trafford

Fingers pointing at seated man in middle

I don’t often get cross these days: after all, I’ve been retired for over a year. Nonetheless, on Wednesday I was stirred to ire by the findings of the 15-year research project by University College London (UCL), which revealed that one in four teachers works more than 60 hours a week

Astonishingly, this is the first study to have tracked workload over such a long period of time. Full marks to UCL for doing it, and to the Nuffield Foundation for funding it. 

But no more than two cheers, please, because it (a) should have been done long before, and (b) demonstrates something the entire profession has long known, but policymakers have wilfully overlooked for 25 years, by the Department for Education’s own admission.

Lead author Professor John Jerrim was quoted as saying: “Bolder plans are needed by the government to show they are serious about reducing working hours for teachers.” 

Driving people out

The NEU teaching union's Kevin Courtney added: “Government is doing a far better job of driving people out of teaching than they are in retaining them.”

The DfE says it “will continue our work with the sector to drive down on these burdensome tasks outside the classroom so that teachers are free to do what they do best – teach”.

Sadly, as NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted describes, most “burdensome tasks” are generated by the government’s excessive accountability regime. Every new Ofsted angle on inspection spawns a fresh round of policy-writing and recording mechanisms. Teachers labour to create for their schools the evidence that assures the inspectorate they’re doing what’s required.

I know: school leaders should be more robust. But we all know the consequences to schools and heads of a poor Ofsted inspection, so forgive their human frailty. Blame the government-driven system, not the links in the middle, which sometimes crack under pressure.

'What teachers do best'

As for “what teachers do best” – teaching – what does that really mean?

To policymakers, it means merely “delivering” learning in the classroom; to pupils and parents, it means much more.

In order to change children’s lives, providing the springboard from which they may leap into challenge, personal growth and fulfilment, teachers must indeed be freed from “burdensome” tasks. But the problem won’t be solved by locking them in the classroom for a number of hours set by contract or diktat. 

Great teaching and consequent workload are about more than hours. While many great teachers establish a fantastic rapport with their pupils within the teaching timetable, more do it beyond the 21 hours’ weekly contact time cited by Mary Bousted. They do it through extra one-to-one help at lunchtime or after school. They work wonders with and for children through sport, music, drama or outdoor education. 

Teams, concerts, plays, musicals or expeditions are created, by definition, almost entirely outside the timetable. They’re the parts of their education that former pupils generally recall most fondly: the challenges, experiences and soft skills gained prepare them for adult life rather more than most classroom learning can. 

Field trips add vital additional learning, and aren’t confined to sciences or geography. At a touring production of Macbeth in Oxford this week, two-thirds of the audience comprised school parties. I suspect those generous teachers supervising would be heartbroken if such trips (a traditional strength of UK schooling) were deemed to breach a set-hours limit. 

Constant threat

Writing as a former teacher and head who worked, I’d say with hindsight, excessive hours for 40 years, I’ll nonetheless risk censure by suggesting that the problem of teacher workload lies less in hours (within reason) than in its nature and intensity, above all in excessive accountability and consequent record-keeping, the constant sense of threat and surveillance, inadequate resourcing and support, over-large classes, unremitting pressure to perform, and lack of appreciation. 

These truths are inconvenient for policymakers – which is why nothing has been done about them despite promises from successive secretaries of state. 

What they should do is stop controlling, measuring and threatening teachers. Trust, value, support and appreciate them, pay them better (and less grudgingly), and many of the things currently driving teachers out of the profession would start to disappear. 

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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