Fuelled by a strong sense of duty

27th April 2007 at 01:00

Many basic skills lecturers accept unpaid overtime as part of professional life, but new research points to an element of exploitation

LECTURERS WHO teach adults basic skills do up to 25 hours a week unpaid overtime in order to meet their students' needs, government-funded research has revealed.

A major study of Skills for Life teachers suggests the majority work far more hours than their contracts require. Many view teaching as a vocation but because they are professional and conscientious, they are in danger of being exploited, the research shows.

Two thirds of those interviewed for the study said they often worked more hours than contracted to. For some, this "gift labour" represented a substantial increase in their workload, with teachers on full-time contracts - often with additional management responsibilities - saying they worked 60 hours a week.

More than 1,000 SfL teachers are involved in the three-year programme to assess the impact of the Government's skills strategy on the professional working lives and career development of the staff. Sixty-three teachers were also interviewed in depth by research-ers for the study by the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.

The strategy aims to improve adult numeracy and literacy, particularly among the unemployed, benefits claimants, prisoners, the low-skilled in work and other groups at risk of exclusion.

There is evidence of teachers working at a frantic pace, continuing their work at home in the evenings and even going into the workplace during their holidays. They find it hard to switch off.

One teacher said: "I am there from at least half eight every morning to six or half six. Never, ever stop for lunch. We always eat our sandwich on the trot. I take a bite and then forget I was eating." Another said: "Every (SfL) sector runs on free labour. Without that it would collapse".

The main reason given for working the extra hours is that their timetables give insufficient time for them to prepare. One said she felt as if she was "always on the treadmill" and if she failed to keep up she would "disappear under an avalanche of lesson planning".

Teachers on part-time (hourly paid or fractional) contracts were more likely to put in extra hours. Around four-fifths said they exceeded contracted hours compared with less than three-fifths of full-time staff.

For hourly-paid teachers in particular meetings, training days and preparation and marking time are treated as unpaid "added extras".

The research also shows they can be victims of their own professionalism.

They tend to over-prepare and need the peace of mind of knowing they are in control. As one teacher said when interviewed: "I like to be on top of it in the sense that I have planned well, know what I am doing and am not all over the place when I'm in the class. So, when learners are asking me for information it is all there. I am organised as well."

The teachers see administrative tasks such as preparation and marking as being part of their professionalism. Some said they work extra hours because they feel they owe it to their students, many of whom arrive with previously poor educational experiences. One said: "I want to be well prepared. I think the students have been failed by the educational service once and they deserve the best."

The majority accept that they will be asked to work extra hours and see this as being part of the profession. "I think it is just part of life now," said one. "It is something you accept early on and you just get on with it, and just continue. To be honest, I don't really think about it."

Many also enjoy their work, and recognise that they get their rewards in other ways, for instance when they see their students' progress and achievement.

However, others do not accept that they should have to work the extra hours and question the basic fairness of the system.

"I continually rail about it. I think it is outrageous. If I didn't work, if I wasn't in college for 36 hours a week, if I skipped off early even if I worked at home, I would be in trouble for breach of contract. But if I work 60 hours a week in order to get my contract covered, which they state is 35 now, then why aren't they in breach of contract for making me work all these hours?"

Some of the most experienced staff warned that teachers had to learn to pace themselves, or be in danger of "burning out", as there was never enough time. One said: "I have had to learn to say, `that is it. I am going now. I am not doing any more.'

"During my first job as a programme coordinator, because I was a perfectionist and very conscientious, I did get stressed and I found it difficult. I actually went down to point eight after a term because it was too much. But now I think, if you are going to survive in that job, you have to step back and say, `they want me to do all of this, but I can only do this - tough'."

Jon Swain is a research officer for the NRDC

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