'If we are to tackle the workload crisis, we need a change in the way teachers are valued and treated'

27th September 2016 at 11:02
The recruitment problem means that time is running out for heads who aren’t dealing with the their teachers’ working conditions, writes one union leader

I wrote, in my second TES blog nearly a year ago, about a teacher whose partner found her crying on the kitchen floor every evening when he came home from work. Over half a million reader hits later, it was clear that I had touched a nerve – not only amongst teachers, but with the public, too. Bad news about teacher stress and exhaustion has become public knowledge in the past few years – something which, I believe, is causing poor recruitment into teaching. Graduates, increasingly, look at the demands that teaching will make upon them and come to the conclusion that the profession is not for them – not if they want a personal life, anyway.

The government has realised that it has a problem, particularly at a time of rising graduate employment. Put simply, teaching now has a bad reputation and a poor press. The rewards and satisfactions of the job (and they are still there) are overshadowed by teachers talking about the stress of constant policy changes which drive poor management practices in schools and the micro-management of teachers. The industry of surveillance, which has grown with the accountability pressures on schools, means that teachers have been spending inordinate amounts of time documenting their practice – submitting weekly lesson plans to their leadership team; suffering book checks in which the frequency of marking is, apparently, more important than the quality of the feedback given; and managing mounds of data – much of it entirely spurious, manufactured to document linear pupil progression when, in reality, there is no such thing.

The government has attempted to do something about the workload problem. The then education secretary, Nicky Morgan, issued a "workload challenge" to teachers. Some 44,000 responses later, it was clear that "something must be done". Three working groups (of teachers and school leaders) were established and produced recommendations on reducing workload related to marking, planning and resources, and data management. While these reports are useful, they cannot be the answer to the workload problem, which has to be tackled in each classroom and in every school.

What is needed is a transformation of the way in which teachers are valued and treated. School leaders are, increasingly, realising that their teachers are their most precious resource. Treating them well, valuing their worth and respecting their professional skills and knowledge are no longer "nice to have" but essential if they are to staff their schools. And it is good to be able to report that more attention is now being paid to effective leadership which concentrates on supporting teachers in their essential work, rather than putting bureaucratic obstacles in their way. One sign that things might be changing is the publication of a timely and much-needed book Managing Teacher Workload – edited by Nansi Ellis, who leads ATL’s education policy work.

Marking can be a waste of time

Chapters by various authors give practical advice to teachers, challenge school leaders and remind school governors of their responsibilities to ensure that all staff have a reasonable work-life balance. Some of the issues tackled are necessarily challenging. Difficult questions are asked, such as: what do lesson plans tell senior leaders that they don’t already know? If they have an overview and some input into some of the longer-term plans, why do they need a detailed plan for every lesson? And how often are they read? (I know a teacher who submitted the same plans every week for a year – all returned, obviously unread, without comment.)

Why does every piece of a pupil’s work have to be marked? Verbal feedback, particularly for work which is in draft, is often more valuable. Detailed marking is immensely time consuming and might only be needed for major pieces of work. And it is a waste of time if teachers do not have the opportunity to speak to pupils, individually, when returning their work, ensuring that they understand the feedback, and highlighting next steps.

A chapter on pupil behaviour – which if it is poor is a major driver of teacher stress and over-work – sets out three central tenets of great behaviour systems in schools:

  1. A simple set of rules that places responsibility for behaviour on children. The children need to know this and be reminded at every opportunity;
  2. This set of rules is a "golden thread" at the heart of everything the school does;
  3. Senior managers recognise that their role is to ensure that teachers can teach and children can learn. (This means no cumbersome bureaucracy surrounding reporting bad behaviour, and no blaming teachers either.)

There is much more in Managing Teacher Workload, including references to ATL’s workload campaign #make1change.

Time is running out for school leaders who fail to take excessive teacher workload seriously. Finding a teacher in some subjects is now as difficult as striking upon a gold seam. The only alternative, at present, is for school leaders to gather teachers to them with hoops of steel (to mix my metaphors), forged with mutual respect, understanding and professionalism.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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