No longer a need to go over the top about overtime

12th March 2010 at 00:00

I was intrigued by the recent report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggesting teachers were more likely than any other profession to work overtime.

I wonder what amount of time the TUC expects teachers to work before it starts to become "overtime". Teachers are contracted to work 1,265 hours of directed time per year, plus whatever further time is necessary to do the job effectively. I thought this was one of the defining factors of a profession - that you put in the hours of work needed to get the job done. In other words, "overtime" in a "profession" should be an oxymoron.

The school day usually only consists of six hours (including registration and break time, but not the lunch break, which teachers can choose to take off if they so wish). This makes the Monday to Friday basic working week just 30 hours long. Most schools have a single "meetings" day per week and these meetings are generally not supposed to take longer than an hour, unless absolutely necessary.

Usually up to seven times a year there are parents' evenings to attend, taking between two and three hours each, and there may be other open evenings on occasion, too.

But even if a teacher is credited with attending all of these events, there is usually plenty of directed time left over: 38 hours a year in my school, which would add up to a further hour's meeting per week - but it seems much more sensible that teachers use this time as part of their planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) that is so critical for effective teaching.

It is a well-advertised fact that teachers are generally in school for 39 weeks per year - 38 with pupils and one for in-service training - giving 13 weeks of holiday.

Other professions enjoy telling us how generous this is, although many teachers will vouch for the fact that work does not stop in holiday time. In fact, this is often when the bulk of teachers' planning and preparation takes place. However, having guaranteed PPA time during the teaching week has undoubtedly improved this situation.

When the Workload Agreement was first introduced, one of the key aims was to try to reduce teachers' average working hours to 45 per week from a position of, apparently, more than 50 hours.

According to the TUC, little progress has been made on achieving this. Forty-five hours per week seems an eminently sensible aim and one that we should all aspire to. I would go so far as to say that I suspect most teachers actually do achieve this and many do not work as many hours as this.

After all, 45 hours per week means 15 hours on top of the 30 hours that a typical school week takes. That's three hours extra per day, or, if a teacher decides to only work one hour extra per day (which is the ridiculous situation that is supposed to exist in Scotland, where working hours for teachers are meant to be no more than 35 per week), a further 10 hours at the weekend.

Do most teachers put in this amount of work outside of the normal school day? I have my doubts.

So why then, when research surveys are carried out, do teachers claim to be working such long hours? I would have thought the answer to that is very obvious. If one is being surveyed about how many hours one works, one is always likely to put down the worst-case scenario and then multiply that by the 39 weeks.

Of course there will be weeks when teachers are working every hour under the sun, perhaps because there are some important resources to produce, or a review of a scheme of work to complete, or a crucial piece of coursework to be marked and returned to pupils. But there will also be weeks when there is little extra to do outside the normal school day.

The Workload Agreement has definitely improved the work-life balance of teachers. It still requires people to be well organised and plan teaching effectively so that there isn't the sort of unnecessary assessment overload that many young teachers experience. I remember in my first year in the profession as an English teacher, believing that I had to assess at least one piece of work from each class every week!

That, on top of all the preparation that a new teacher has to do, led me to working on all but two days during my first year - and one of those was Christmas. I quickly realised that if I was going to survive, it was the quality of assessment that counted, not the quantity.

So there is personal responsibility and discipline in this, but I believe the profession is now in a position where teachers can restrict their working hours on average to 45 per week and that is what we should be aiming to do. This still makes for a demanding week, but then it is a profession we are in and not a nine-to-five office job. And we do have those holidays to look forward to ...

Alan Tootill, Headteacher, Penyrheol Comprehensive, Swansea.

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