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'The reason for teacher burnout? The Big Brother culture'

If we want to stop teachers from leaving teaching for good, we need to scrap Ofsted, and accountability measures that promote 'outcomes' as the be all and end all, writes Tom Rogers

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If we want to stop teachers from leaving teaching for good, we need to scrap Ofsted, and accountability measures that promote 'outcomes' as the be all and end all, writes Tom Rogers

This week, I’ll be participating in the live debate hosted by Tes: "Burn-out: How can we keep the best teachers teaching?"

The key question for me is: what’s actually driving the epidemic that we call 'teacher burnout'? What's the driving force behind the things that happen in schools that force good teachers out of them? My answer is a simple one: the accountability measure and those that enforce it.

In the government’s workload survey, respondents most commonly said that the burden of their workload was created by accountability and the perceived or real pressures of Ofsted (53 per cent) and tasks set by senior/middle leaders (51 per cent). 40 per cemt of the same respondents said that changes to accountability systems would offer the best solution to reducing workload.

In my view, workload is one thing, intense pressure is another. Of course, they link together – but not always. This is an important distinction. Teachers expect to work hard, I certainly do. It’s when you work hard but aren’t trusted, are viewed with suspicion and constantly questioned that wears plenty of teachers down to breaking point. So many 'tasks' stem from the real threat of an unfair accountability system based on student performance and the willingness of some individuals within school communities to buy into it all.

“Sadly, this is education. I keep a student log for every student showing attendance, catch up sessions, parental contact, homework etc. All to justify the grade they may or may not get. Madness,” says one middle leader I know.

And that middle leader's story is not uncommon: teachers forced to justify their every move when it comes to student progress has become commonplace in lots of schools.

It's also become common practice that every half term, a teacher has to record every 'intervention' they've made with each student, then attend a 'pupil progress' meeting to discuss what they've recorded. Then record new targets based on what they've recorded. After that, they can plan some lessons.

The pressure on teachers to ensure their students make 'rapid' and 'sustained' progress is stark, often invisible to the naked eye, but incredibly powerful and taxing. A constant stream of questions ranging from “what are you doing to ensure X hits his target grade?” to “what interventions have you applied to ensure X makes sufficient progress?” creates stress and self-doubt in the minds of so many excellent teachers.

This culture of 'guilty until proven innocent' when it comes to 'underachieving' students is so damaging – it’s become a virulent disease that's infected many schools. It's this disease that drives the vast majority of the 'tasks' that add extra workload for teachers, and hence causes eventual burnout – the observations, learning walks, work scrutinies, pupil progress interviews, marking for the sake of evidence, excess meetings and so on.

Above all, it’s the 'Big Brother is always watching' feeling that sends many over the edge. It's easy to level this stuff at poor senior leadership teams: a strategy peddled by Ofsted's Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford on social media and beyond. Last year, Spielman blamed 'bloggers' for whipping up the anxiety in the profession: “There are quite a few heads in the system who write blogs that spin up levels of anxiety. It’s not just the various parts of government… there’s also a responsibility in the whole education system not to manufacture tension which shouldn’t be there.” The spin continues to be spun.

Of course, it's not just Ofsted inspections themselves that put schools in a constant state of terror and angst, it’s the underpinning accountability measures that Ofsted uses to judge schools that do so – the results or 'outcomes'. Schools in tough areas, fighting against environmental factors more than most, feel particularly pressured to catch up with their counterparts, whose results are better.

Often, these results, which propel schools to good or outstanding status, can be attributed to all sorts of 'other' factors, from the ethnic makeup of the school community to heritable cohort variability. Of course, that’s not to say that many of these schools aren’t excellent. But it is to say that their role in being excellent (getting results) isn’t as pronounced as the inspectorate, the media or in some cases the schools themselves (think Ofsted banners) would have you think.

On the ground, as previously mentioned, the desperation to squeeze every last ounce of progress from every student leads to a myriad of extra 'interventions' and a host of time-consuming, headache-inducing activities for the ordinary teacher. This, acting alongside subtle and often hidden pressure to 'get results' leads to a mental strain that combines to produce this thing we call 'burnout'. That’s when teachers quit.

To stop them doing so, it's right that we promote ways for schools to cut the unnecessary out, something Ofsted’s 'myths' campaign helps towards, a campaign full of good advice, but one which diverts attention away from the core problem – themselves.

However, apart from offering schools and teacher’s clear guidance on evidence-based practice to reduce workload (there's still so much to do here), surely we have to tackle the root cause of it all – the accountability measures and how they are enforced. So, scrap Ofsted gradings, (perhaps scrap the organisation itself), scrap the accountability measures used that hold up 'outcomes' as the be all and end all.

If we must monitor school 'standards', whether through Ofsted, self- or peer-review, then other aspects of what a school is doing must take precedence – the things within the school's control, like leadership and management, pastoral provision and behaviour for learning.

Linking school quality to the progress and attainment of students is not only unhelpful but goes against the evidence that shows you can’t directly link teacher quality to student outcomes.

Stop this and stop burnout, stop teachers leaving in droves and keep teachers teaching. Final point: no money required.

Join Tes and Cognita at the debate on 19 April. Tickets are free, and you can register here. 

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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