Lockdown shows why teachers need more preparation time

In-service weeks rather than in-service days could be the way ahead, says teacher Sammy McHugh

Sammy McHugh

Lockdown shows why teachers need more preparation time

Here we are in another lockdown and everyone in schools is setting up for remote learning for a far longer period than originally suggested.

Teacher social media seemed to go into meltdown when we first learned about a change of plan just before the Strictly final on the Saturday before Christmas, with people wondering about how everything was going to be ready with such little preparation time.

The Scottish government could have chosen to extend the holiday for all pupils by another week, so that at the very least, teachers could have had this week to get organised. I suspect that they felt the media backlash would be too much, as many key-worker parents had already planned their schedules and would be relying on schools to open from Tuesday 5 January, or later that week.


Background: School return on 1 February looks increasingly unlikely

Also today: Full reopening of schools delayed again

Context: Teaching time way above average in Scotland

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They would no doubt have witnessed the media outrage from some quarters aimed at teachers in England, who were given an extra in-service day (or inset day, as they call it) at the end of last term. The provision of in-service days, while not a panacea, acknowledges that, as professionals, we need time away from the classroom to complete tasks that we simply cannot do when engaged in the process of teaching.

When we returned to school in August after a very long period of lockdown, many councils decided to cut the second in-service day. This led to many staff using their legitimate holiday time to prepare for what was the most momentous start to a year ever.

Some voiced their concerns and asked why they couldn’t just have given schools a full week before the pupils returned to organise and prepare properly, but everything was caught up in the maelstrom of the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) situation and the continuing logistical problems about getting pupils back to school while social distancing. And anyway, the public’s bafflement as to why teachers need in-service days has always loomed large: they see them as yet another holiday, and our employers don’t try all that hard to dispel that myth.

In fact, we teachers in Scotland (and in the rest of the UK) work some of the longest hours in the world, and we also spend a lot longer in front of pupils than many of our international colleagues. Yet, face-to-face teaching is only a part of the job: we also plan, organise, design, assess, moderate, analyse and reflect. And we repeat this on a constant loop.

But of course we are seen as childcare providers as well as educators, and that’s the big elephant in the room: successive governments don’t want to rock that particular boat, not only for fear of losing votes, but in case they are forced to invest in the infrastructure to support working parents properly.

If no one is willing to speak up for us, then teachers need to do something to help themselves: we need to stop colluding with this notion that our jobs are a vocation and that we happily sacrifice our time with our families (and in some cases our mental health) for the common good.

We need to come clean about how much effort it actually takes to teach our youngsters; we need to stop working nights, and weekends, and holidays; we need to be honest about the complex nature of planning curricula and schemes of work; the hours it can take adapting lessons to suit the ever-expanding range of needs in our classes; the time and graft of creating and moderating assessments and of correcting and giving feedback. We need to stop being complicit in our own misery because we never say "no". 

Let’s start small, by calling for an end to the tokenistic approach of in-service days. Let’s allow ourselves to evolve as a profession and insist on in-service weeks – not days – in every term.

Just think what schools could achieve with those extra weeks: it would free up our holidays and allow us to return with time for those other important tasks in our schedules. In an ideal world, I’d go further: I’d slash class contacts to give teachers more time during the working week, to put us on a par with our international colleagues. No wonder we have some of the highest stress levels of any profession – our work-life balance is off the scale. 

Perhaps an inducement for society to support us might be if some time came from the lengthy summer holiday (with commensurate pay obviously). I appreciate this is a controversial view – but we have to be pragmatic to get those notoriously stiff wheels of progress to budge. Our young people need us more than ever right now and we owe it to them – and ourselves – to get the time needed to do the best job possible.

Sammy McHugh is a teacher of English who works in Scotland. She tweets @MsSammyMcHugh

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