Calm look at the true burden on teachers;Books

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Brian Slough finds reasoned argument at last in the education reform debate. Primary teachers at work, By R J Campbell and S R StJ Neill, Routledge pound;14.99 0 415 08863 1

Secondary teachers at work, By R J Campbell and S R StJ Neill, Routledge pound;14.99 0 415 08865 8

In Primary Teachers at Work a plan of escape from the curriculum quagmire begins with "a five year moratorium on further changes to the orders, so as to stabilise the curriculum, with official acknowledgement of the problem of overload."

Behold, in the Prime Minister's speech at this year's Bournemouth conference the pledge was continuity and stability: "After the curriculum changes of recent years, teachers deserve stability to be able to get on with their jobs without any more upheaval. So today I promise them this. There will be no further significant changes for the next five years." After every tempest comes such calm.

The tempest from 1987 to 1993, from the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act and the Education Reform Act to the Dearing rethink, probably brought the most pervasive statutory intrusions upon teachers' work ever. In 1993, Michael Duffy (a former president of the Secondary Heads Association) suggested that commitment was being "put at risk by the avalanche of contradictory orders and instructions that rumbles down incessantly from distant heights." These two books (part of a Warwick University project) provide an instructive exploration of these sadly unique years, including lessons to be learned, not least about imposed change.

One outstanding example is the section examining how primary school teachers, in delivering the national curriculum, entered Apocalypse Now, but with Baker not Brando as line manager. Even those with the combined talents of Einstein and Houdini could not squeeze "the curriculum quart into the pint pot of the school day".

Overall, these studies of primary and secondary school teachers drew on a database of records of more than 6,700 working days from 711 teachers in 91 local education authorities, perhaps the largest empirical data set of its kind. The first, and longer, parts of both books chart and analyse how teachers spend their working lives, both in and out of school, within five main categories: teaching, preparation, administration, professional development and other activities. The findings are presented with neutrality, acknowledging where figures are "slightly misleading" or needing to be "treated with caution".

Their disciplined evidence about the extent and nature of the impact of a stream of legislative changes is far-reaching in its implications. It ought to inform future policy perspectives, both for local school management and government decisions nationwide. When recent public discussion of education has been so volatile politically, then reasoned argument is especially refreshing.

Several broadly similar characteristics are identified in the work of teachers in both phases. Workloads have increased substantially, with a term-time week of more than 50 hours now the norm; this figure should (but doubtless won't) dispel the teacher-bashing myth of the nine-to-three sinecure.

The patterning of time, however, continues to be restructured. Thus teaching, strictly defined, took less than a third of working time, but preparation increased, as did administration and working breaks. Most significant, of course, in perpetuating the nine-to-three jibe was the unseen work fulfilled at home (24 to 27 per cent).

The accumulation of responsibilities and salary incentives did not markedly affect the amount of time spent on work (though it might determine its nature). Secondary teachers experienced less intensive "simultaneous working" and had more non-contact time and smaller classes than their primary school colleagues.

Each book's second part contains wider-ranging comment on the findings of the data, relating them to matters of school management, the curriculum and the "dilemma of teacher conscientiousness."

This "dilemma" carries overriding importance: "A subtext of all these essays is the issue of teacher professionalism during a period of imposed curriculum change." The increase of central control, with its absurd intensification of ill-planned demands, alienated teachers; many felt "deprofessionalised" and burnt out. The psychological relativity of time makes its management by others difficult, even ineffectual. That truth, however, should never allow externally defined workloads to make autonomous time management potentially dangerous. The Prime Minister's conference speech was conciliatory: "Many teachers feel there's too much paperwork. I agree, and there still is ..." Assuming the ambiguity was unintentional, do these words suggest teacher commitments might stabilise and extra burdens cease?

Meantime, if the future is a world limited by ourselves, schools should continue to monitor their own systems. If the occupational split between managers and teachers widens, presumably senior staff will spend longer on strategic planning. Here, mention is made of "minimalist management", which assumes that headteachers will further prioritise outside documents, prevent or reduce interruptions and change wherever possible, and hope that someone reciprocates for them.

Nevertheless, self-help revisions cannot mask the obvious reality that resources rule. For example, excessive time is still spent on low-level tasks (ask deputies) maybe through institutional inertia or atrophied occupational cultures. More likely it stems from insufficient funds for additional support staff or para-professionals. Extra teachers would not only reduce class size, but help to alleviate the too common mismatch of subject expertise and teaching duties in secondary schools, particularly in the smallest. That is disturbing: the discernible, continuing evidence for the existence of an underclass of women staff is disgraceful. Equal opportunities will not be achieved without financial commitment.

This research should be read by all who, like the good Shephard, wish to see "educational reforms take root so they may come to full flower". Its style benefits from an inclination to understatement and the absence of emotive polemic or the schmaltzy charm offensive. In particular, it contributes towards a much needed, realistic image of teachers at work and an understanding of their effectiveness. The flower, after all, sanctifies the vase.

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