Teacher workload has risen back to the top of the agenda in recent weeks with ministers issuing new action plans – and unions threatening industrial action if they don’t work.
But a Tes investigation has revealed how growing numbers of teachers around the country have given up waiting for a national solution and are starting to take control of the workload problem for themselves at a local level.
Teachers in Nottingham pushed for the “Fair Workload Charter” set up by the education improvement board that runs schools in the city.
The document limits extra work over and above teaching to two hours a day and has provided inspiration for several other areas of the country to draw up similar plans.
Sheena Wheatley, the NEU teaching union’s secretary for Nottingham and a member of the board’s workload working group, said the aim was to make schools in the area employers of choice for whom recruits can expect to work hard but “not pointlessly hard”.
“If you do limit hours then you have to have a discussion about what are the most beneficial activities in terms of the children,” she said.
Durham’s fair workload charter was created in partnership with unions and local primary and secondary headteacher associations, and with all 268 schools in the county.
According to the local authority, it has been “widely accepted”. There is also a scheme to help heads manage their own workload and wellbeing.
Claire Taylor, a teacher for 13 years, got a job at a primary school in the county last year and said leaders there are very “conscious” of the charter. She still works a 50 hour week, but said: “It’s less than I did work.”
In Coventry, a scheme with the same hours limit as Nottingham is currently being piloted in eight of the city’s 119 schools.
Ensuring that workload is 'doable'
“It’s about ensuring that what you are asking teachers to do is doable,” said Jane Nellist, the city’s joint NEU secretary.
“Heads and governors are supposed to have a legal obligation about your work-life balance, but, of course, as we can see, that hasn’t worked.
“What we said in our charter is that the workload that you are asked to do as a teacher should not exceed an extra 10 hours a week.
“So you would have the 1,265 hours spread out over the year, but each week you shouldn’t be doing any more [extra] than 10 hours, which would significantly reduce the workload of a teacher.”
For a school to achieve the Coventry charter mark, a certain percentage of staff have to be happy with their workload.
“The thing is the onus is on the school,” Ms Nellist said. “They need to establish what the workload is in their school, and that’s something that has been very difficult for schools to take on board because they haven’t got a clue, some heads, about what teachers are being asked to do.”
Teachers don’t always have to turn to their local authorities to get results on workload. They are managing to progress at individual school level as well.
Louise Atkinson’s mental health was suffering because of her “horrendous” 65-hour working week
“It was that feeling of never being able to complete your list,” the primary school teacher said.” It was just feeling like you are constantly being flooded with more and more and never being able to complete anything that you’re supposed to do.”
But now her primary, in Cumbria, has tried to do something about it. Teachers there now only do data collection termly, rather than every half-term, and the primary has invested in online resources to help with planning.
The school has also looked carefully at its marking policy to ensure that it is reasonable, and manageable. The mood is now “much better”, according to Ms Atkinson.
In Northern Ireland, teachers have taken a more direct approach to cutting workload. A slow-burn industrial action has empowered them to refuse to carry out tasks they regard as unnecessary and pointless.
The action began in January 2017, just as the Northern Ireland government collapsed. Teachers said they are now “happy” because the action allows them to focus on teaching.
Gordon White, a secondary school teacher and NEU rep in Londonderry, said the strength of the campaign is the fact that all teaching unions are involved.
Decisions on exactly which tasks teachers refuse to do differs from school to school. In Mr White’s school, it means only attending one meeting per week, not taking part in any new initiative and not providing information or agreeing to meetings with the schools’ inspectorate.
“When the school is inspected, what is happening is the inspectors are coming into schools and they are not getting access to the classroom, so they basically stay with the principal,” he said.
The result is that teachers are able to concentrate on their core jobs “as opposed to a lot of needless accountability. “It’s amazing,” Mr White said. “Teachers are very happy. The fact that they are in control of their day.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 11 May edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.