Last month the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers published a report on teachers' working hours since the post-McCrone agreement. But behind the figures and statistics lies the first real picture of what their working lives are like. Douglas Blane reports. Illustration by Hashim Akib
Teaching is a full-time job that has never been easy, but when the idea was to educate the brightest, keep the majority quiet and come down like a ton of bricks on the troublemakers, teachers at least knew what they were supposed to be doing.
It's harder now: learning is more important than teaching. Eco-schools, citizenship and enterprise are essential, but reading, writing and arithmetic have not gone away. Assessment is for learning, not weeding out the weak. Every child is included, in classes that allow two minutes of teacher's time per pupil. Synthetic phonics is the bee's knees and analytic phonics makes you go blind - or was that last week's advice?
There is simply not enough time in the working week for marking, lesson preparation, forward planning, staff development, responding to new initiatives, talking to management and parents ... and, oh yes, a bit of teaching squeezed in somewhere.
The national agreement following the McCrone report was supposed to bring some semblance of sanity, with its commitment to the introduction of a 35-hour working week for all teachers from August 1, 2001. It hasn't happened, says Ian Menter, the lead author of a new report from Glasgow University, commissioned by the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. "According to our research, class teachers across the country are now averaging 42.5 hours a week. When you include school managers, it goes up to 45 hours."
Media coverage of this research has so far focused on the bare statistics and the way ahead. But many teachers across the country contributed, through interviews, focus groups and diaries, much more than mere statistics, says Professor Menter.
Lack of space meant their voices did not make it to the final report, but they are worth hearing. "Teachers are interested in other teachers'
thoughts and experiences. These also set a context to help us understand the statistical findings," he says.
The most illuminating finding concerned perceptions of essential duties, says Professor Menter. "According to the agreement, teachers are supposed to distinguish between these and non-essential tasks. We found enormous resistance to any distinction of that kind.
"Most teachers we talked to felt they only did work that was essential to their concept of being a teacher."
Even with extra-curricular activities - "which by definition are non-essential" - teachers were saying that if they stopped doing these, they would not be fulfilling their role as a teacher. "That was a very common argument."
What this reveals, says Professor Menter, is a concept of teacher professionalism and identity that is widespread in Scotland, but not to the same extent elsewhere. "You might not find it in other European countries, particularly those, like France, where teachers are effectively civil servants. In those countries there is a clearer, narrower definition of what teachers are contracted to do.
"Teachers in Scotland see themselves in a more holistic role. The national agreement, according to our findings, has not significantly altered that,"
Teachers talked about their expectations of the agreement and their disappointment that the working week has not become more manageable, says Professor Menter. "The fact is that they could be taking a lot more responsibility for reducing that working week, but they are very reluctant to do so."
In contrast, other influences on the length and character of the week were outwith teachers' control. An "apparently accelerating range of initiatives", especially at national level, was mentioned by many teachers.
"There is a feeling that external forces are intervening between them and the job."
Teachers found it difficult to isolate questions of time from all other issues - bureaucracy, innovation, management restructuring, job sizing, inclusion - that confronted them, says Professor Menter. "We were asking about time for class contact, continuing professional development, management, parents' meetings. But they were talking about how the nature of the job has changed."
Expectations had certainly been raised by the agreement. "But such is the rate of change in education, that the feeling is one of increased workload, more paperwork, more initiatives."
Positive comment was scarce: almost two- thirds of teachers saw little change in their professional autonomy since the agreement. Two-thirds of the minority who saw a change said it had decreased.
But some positive comment was found, says Professor Menter. "At a focus group meeting where teachers were complaining about the worst effects of the settlement, one teacher expressed a view shared by many colleagues across the country. 'Dealing with kids is a lot of fun. You never, ever get bored. You get frustrated; you get angry. All these emotions come into it.
We are still teachers; we are still here. That's why we came into it. We do enjoy the job. I still get a buzz about teaching.' "
Another positive finding is that class contact time has, largely, been reduced, as specified in the agreement. The researchers found a particularly strong impact on primary teachers "who have begun experiencing non-class contact time in a systematic way for the first time".
Overall, however, there is little sign that improved working conditions and greater professional autonomy - key aims not just of the national agreement but also Assessment is for Learning and A Curriculum for Excellence - are being delivered, says Professor Menter. The Scottish Executive has been trying to "stimulate innovation by teachers rather than on teachers, but it would appear that bringing about such a cultural shift has not yet been achieved", he says.
In the end it is hard to escape the statistics. According to the national agreement: "The individual and collective work of teachers should be capable of being undertaken within the 35-hour working week." But five years after the agreement was reached, this objective is not even close to being achieved, according to Glasgow University. Instead it "has increased by between two and three hours" for the average Scottish teacher.
Ian Menter et al (2006). "Teacher Working Time Research". Report to the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Faculty of Education, University of Glasgow
A new series of teachers' diaries
WHAT THE TEACHERS SAY
Comments gathered by Glasgow University
"As for the 35 hours, it has always been a matter for hilarity in our place."
"I don't go seeking wee extra tasks and it still takes me on average between 45 and 50 hours a week to get through the essentials."
"Whatever your contractual hours are seems almost irrelevant to when you're working. You're going right through to finish any job."
"The agreement was a disaster. I work longer and have greater difficulty getting staff to cover McCrone hours. All my staff agree we should go back to the way it was for less money."
("That was one of the more extreme comments," says Professor Menter. "Most teachers don't want to give the money back.") "My working week has a huge effect on my family life. I envy those who can switch off at the weekends."
Peripatetic secondary teacher
"The harder you work to do things, the more things you are given to do, combined with all the additional reports coming in. There isn't time to read all those and take them on board."
"I have concerns. I want inclusion to work but there is a heavy cost to the other children. It does affect delivery of the curriculum. The policy is not adequately resourced. We need to have adequate resources and advice and small classes. The children need time out for themselves and for other children."
Learning support teacher
"I find that the increased admin support is used by the headteacher rather than the class teacher, who, if anything, has more admin."
"The introduction of classroom assistants, that's made a big impact, certainly on the management in terms of having folk that are responsible and can carry out tasks that were sometimes left in abeyance for some time."
"I do take advantage of off-site working because I'm a principal teacher with the same teaching load as the others in the department. So I have to take myself away, go home, do my reports and things because I cannot lock my door from the inside."