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Mary Bousted's call to arms on teacher workload: the full text

In her speech to the NEU (ATL section) conference this morning, joint general secretary Mary Bousted warned the government that it had been 'put on notice' that it will face industrial action unless it acts to cut teacher workload. Read her speech in full below.

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In her speech to the NEU (ATL section) conference this morning, joint general secretary Mary Bousted warned the government that it had been 'put on notice' that it will face industrial action unless it acts to cut teacher workload. Read her speech in full below.

I feel quite emotional right now.

It is 16 years since I first made first my speech to an ATL conference. And as this is the last speech I will make to an ATL conference.

But, conference, I have to say that this speech, today, is, I think, the most important that I have made in my long career as general secretary of ATL.

Because this is a critical time for the education profession and for our pupils.

As I look around me, I see a school funding crisis which is getting worse.

I see children and young people whose mental wellbeing is under threat – and I wonder how far a narrow, academic curriculum and a barrage of high-stakes tests are contributing to the increasing mental ill-health of our children and young people.

And I see teachers, far too many teachers, deciding that enough is enough. They cannot cope, anymore, with the stress and exhaustion which affects teachers as a matter of routine.

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. But in England, we waste, on an industrial scale, the talent, commitment and potential of our teachers.

More than half of teachers in England leave the profession within 10 years. They leave pupils who need them; colleagues who rely on them; parents who know that their children’s life chances are being denied by the acute shortage of teachers in schools.

Teachers don’t want to walk away from the classroom. They want to stay working with their pupils. That is why so many teachers take a huge pay cut and stay in schools working as support staff.

'The job of teaching has become undoable'

Imagine that. Imagine consultants becoming healthcare assistants. You can’t really, can you? But that is the equivalent of what thousands of teachers are doing – because the job of teaching has become undoable.

Teachers now work more unpaid overtime than any other profession. Beginning teachers, once they have paid tax, national insurance and their student loan, count the number of hours they are working, and then calculate that they are being paid less than the minimum wage.

Pay is important. In its most recent report on teacher supply, the National Audit Office recommended that the government help teachers to buy homes inhigh-costt areas – we have a motion on that at this conference.  

But pay is only one, and not the main, reason that teachers are walking away. The key issue is workload. And I want to consider this carefully in my speech to you today, because I think it is the essence, the heart of our current parlous state of educational affairs.

The government is well aware that teachers and school leaders are working far too many hours. As Kevin [Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union] said in his speech on Monday, we welcome [education secretary] Damian Hinds’ commitment to reducing teacher workload. But, conference, we have been here before. 

Remember [former education secretary] Nicky Morgan’s launch of her workload challenge in 2014? Forty-four thousand teachers responded to her invitation to say just what it was that was keeping them up to the small hours.

Lesson planning, marking and data collection were the key culprits then. And they still are.

ATL members told us in 2017 that their working hours were getting worse, despite the government’s guidance on reducing workload.

But government guidance on what teachers should not do is simply not enough.

We have to be more ambitious.

We have to say just what it is that teachers should do.

We have to decide just what it is to be a teacher.

Teachers 'can't exercise professional judgement'

When we have agreed that, then we can start to think constructively about what supports that professionalism, and we can then work to create a climate where teaching becomes, once again, a joy and a delight.

Where teachers and lecturers have a passion, which is infectious and which raises the status of the profession, making it one of the best jobs in the world.

And teaching becomes a profession which the brightest and the best graduates will clamour to enter, and be proud to remain in.

ATL did this work in its policy statement on teacher professionalism.  We said, amongst other things (it’s a long statement, I will just read out the best bits) that:

"The teaching profession is a learning profession, continually developing knowledge of subjects and the relationships between them."

"A teacher’s professional role is based on care for pupils and responsibility for their learning."

And that "teachers, as professionals, should be able to exercise judgement on curriculum, assessment and pedagogy".

But, over the course of the past eight years, in particular, teachers have been denied the right to exercise their professional judgement. 

And teachers today, are being forced to teach pupils in ways which they find to be unacceptable, which distresses them.

'A crisis in children's mental health'

Teachers are being forced to teach a narrow, academic curriculum which does not meet the interests and needs of the majority of our children and young people, and which is compounded by a vicious high-stakes testing regime. A regime which is creating a crisis in children and young people’s mental health.

Teachers, who like children and young people and want to help them to be ambitious, life-long learners, see the damage that the current national curriculum and tests are doing, and decide that they can, no longer, be part of an education system which goes so strongly against their professional principles.

Do you know, England is a complete outlier when it comes to the curriculum and its assessment? We are hurtling forwards to a rosy past where academic subjects are all that matters, really. Where there is an implicit belief that it is good for children and young people to fail throughout their school life – with a sense that this is, somehow, "good for their character".

It is not just that the school curriculum is narrowing, as schools face impossible funding decisions, so art, and music, and drama, and design technology, and so much more is lost from the curriculum.

It is not just that the national curriculum is too packed with content so that, in covering everything, too much is skimmed over, without the time to really foster, in our pupils, a deep understanding of what they are learning.

It is not just that the return to timed tests leaves teachers and pupils suffering under a welter of practice papers and mock exams, belying the promise made that taking away coursework and practical learning would lead to more teaching time.

It is not just that our pupils are spending their time in school writing – and that speaking and listening, making and doing, and relating their learning to real-life contexts are becoming a rarity.

It is not just that so many teachers see the damage that is being done both to their pupils and to their own professionalism, and decide that they cannot do this anymore.

And we, in England, are doing this just at the same time as other high-performing education nations are deciding to take a different path; countries like Singapore, which has acknowledged that decades of didactic teaching towards high-stakes exams has resulted in high levels of student stress and unhappiness. With students who are compliant and complicit, but not good communicators, rule breakers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

Breaking the shackles of narrow curricula

So, in Singapore, there is a new education goal – to develop the whole person and to promote the personal attributes of self-awareness, self-management, self-assessment and responsible decision-making.

And Singapore is not alone in refocusing the goals of its education system beyond narrow academic curricula and high-stakes testing. So too are New Zealand, Japan, Estonia and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario.

They realise that there must be another way. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development realises this, too. And it argues: “If everyone can search for information on the internet, the rewards now come from what people can do with that knowledge.” Schools, should, says the OECD, encourage students to be "ingenious".

Imagine that – schools encouraging students to be ingenious.

Applied knowledge. Interdisciplinary knowledge. Skills development. This is where successful education systems are heading. Systems which recognise that employers increasingly need learners who adapt easily and who are able to apply and transfer their skills and knowledge to new contexts.

And where does this leave us in the United Kingdom?

Well, we are top of the memorisation table, coming only behind Uruguay and Ireland for rote learning.

And the problem with this? Well, as the OECD international evidence base proves, rote learning is fine for simple, basic knowledge, but becomes less and less effective as a teaching strategy the more complex and high-level the learning needs to be.

Teachers in the UK don’t want to teach this way.

In its international survey on teacher beliefs, the OECD reports that UK teachers believe that their role is to enable their pupils to be ingenious – to think of solutions to practical problems themselves and to promote their students' thinking and reasoning processes.

But the greater the distance between what teachers believe is in the best interests of their pupils, and what they are forced to do, the more teachers’ wellbeing and confidence is affected.

And this affects their pupils. Because there is increasing evidence that teachers’ sense of agency, their belief that they can make decisions on classroom teaching approaches which best meet the needs of their pupils, is connected to pupil achievement.

'Put a limit on teachers' working hours'

So, it is absolutely in the interests of our pupils, their parents and our society as a whole, in the interests of employers and industry and the economy, that we have a confident, happy, purposeful, fairly rewarded teaching profession working in well-funded schools. Isn’t that right?

And so why does that simple statement feel like a pipe dream?

I put the government on notice, now. It must trust its teachers and support them so that teachers can support their pupils and prepare them for life and work in the 21st century. 

And that is why the National Education Union is campaigning on pay, so that teachers can afford to stay in the profession. Our demand for a 5 per cent fully funded pay rise is restrained and reasonable.

Are you all getting ready for the 21 and 22 April – the weekend of action on school funding cuts? Have you ordered your poster? Have you ordered your leaflets? Have you arranged a local meeting? Have you organised a banner drop?

If not, get on to the ATL section website and order your materials and get campaigning to reverse school cuts.

We are campaigning on workload. Teachers’ working hours must be reduced and their work must become more satisfying and professional. As Kevin said to you yesterday, and I said to the NUT section conference, if the government won’t take action on workload, the National Education Union will consult its members to do just that.

I believe the time has come, now, for the government to set a limit on teachers’ working hours – a limit negotiated with the unions and properly enforced. It is the only way I can think of to end the long-hours culture in schools and to give teachers a firm place on which to stand and say: “If you want me to do this, I can’t do that.”

It would make ministers think carefully about their approach to education policy reform. Imagine, ministers having to research and take into account just how many working hours it would take teachers to prepare for their next best idea. Imagine if ministers actually had to take into account how long it took to prepare to teach a new national curriculum, or a GCSE or A-level qualification.

It is good to think of education ministers pausing for thought. They should do it more often……

We are campaigning on high-stakes testing, so that pupils learn less by rote and more by considering problems and challenges in real-life situations – where they are required, also, to develop the skills that employers are crying out for – speaking and listening well; collaborating with each other well; using IT effectively; showing initiative and leadership and drive. (How can these skills be developed if their school lives are spent behind a desk memorising facts?)

Teachers' discontent 'can't be contained for much longer'

Damian Hinds would do well to listen to our demands. Because, at the moment, we are asking nicely. But we will only ask for so long. If we don’t get the answers we need, we will consult our members, whose pent-up discontent will not be held in much longer.

And there is another area in which the government must take action. It must demonstrate its care and responsibility for teachers by taking action on the accountability framework under which teachers, lecturers, leaders and support staff suffer.

You know, I can’t recount the number of times that ATL has argued that our accountability system is not fit for purpose. We have not just been naysayers, we have created an alternative in our vision for inspection.

Even the government is prepared, when it comes to elections and when it wants the teachers’ vote, to acknowledge that something is going wrong in the way schools are inspected. The Conservatives have promised, in their last two election manifestos, to "review" Ofsted.

A manifesto commitment which they have not honoured.

But it now appears that the ground is shifting. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to abolish Ofsted.

And Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, Angela Rayner, has said that Ofsted is not fit for purpose.

She is absolutely right. Ofsted is not fit for purpose. It is an inspection agency which punishes schools which educate poor children, awarding inspection judgements based on a school’s intake rather than the standards of its teaching and the progress children make in their learning.

So, we will be asking all the political parties just what they are going to do about Ofsted, an agency, which, more than any other, has acted to exhaust teachers and school leaders and drive them from the profession. An agency which has done more than any other to decimate teacher supply and to threaten educational standards in England.

'Curb MAT bosses' pay'

And while Ofsted and the regional schools commissioners engage in turf disputes about who inspects what, it pains me to say that some multi-academy trusts get away with the fraudulent misuse of public money which has been given to them for children’s education.

Conference, if you are an academy trustee you should be doing a public duty, giving the best governance to the academy, or academy chain, you are a trustee of. If you are the CEO of an academy chain, you should be running it with a public service ethos.

You should not be awarding yourself £50,000 rises while your teaching and support staff suffer under austerity pay rates for years and years.

You should not be setting up companies, run by your daughter or your wife or some other relation, to provide "services" to your school, extracting profit, lots of profit, £120 million worth, out of public service.

So, I want to finish my speech today by resurrecting the public service ethos.

Schools must be places for all our children and young people to be educated. Not market-driven places where pupils are "off-rolled" if they are not going to be entered for the EBacc.

Schools must be places for all our children and young people, and that includes, especially it includes, those with SEND. Because we have so much to learn from children and young people with SEND, and our schools lose so much when they are not inclusive.

Schools and colleges must be places where all education professionals – teachers, lecturers, support staff – are valued and treasured for the work they do. Because if they are not, we lose them and their talents. And our education system cannot afford to lose their talents, skills experience and expertise.

And that is why ATL and the NUT have joined together to form the National Education Union. Because now is the time. The time to campaign, and to act, to recreate an education system which is fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century.

Together we are stronger. Together we can really make a difference.

So, let’s go out and do just that, shall we?

Thank you.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union

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