No more the 7am shift

24th September 2004 at 01:00
It's so very British: working ludicrous hours to prove your worth. Gerald Haigh finds out how to restore your work-life balance

How early do you get to school? What time do you leave? More importantly, what feelings do these questions evoke? The whole business of how much time you devote to school is fraught with possibilities for resentment, guilt and envy. The problem is that as you reach the middle years of your career, you hit out-of-school pressures that didn't exist earlier. There is, for example, the little matter of your own children, whose existence effectively duplicates many of the demands that school places upon you.

There's your school's parents' evening, and there's their school's parents'

evening. Your nativity play, their nativity play. Your school trip, their school trip. Your home-school commute and theirs. Your illness, their illness.

Suddenly, fairly routine school management demands - a meeting that goes on until 5pm, a twilight course, a pre-school briefing session - which once you might not even have remembered until the last minute, now have to be written up on the calendar and worked around with the aid of telephone calls, partner negotiation, lifts, after-school clubs and inter-parental co-operation.

That's fine - it's part of the job, a product of your own life choices, and you have no cause to complain. Not, that is, as long as there's understanding and fair dealing from above.

What, though, if the fairness slips a little? What if your head's life is centred on school, to the extent that he or she forgets that it's not like that for everybody? For some teachers, this is a real and worrying problem.

Here's a 43-year-old teacher with three children in two different schools.

She has to leave school no later than 4.30pm - but she's never missed a pre-arranged meeting or course, and she's confident of the quality of her work. Lately, though, she's felt pushed out of the loop.

"The head is in soon after seven in the morning," she says. "He's walking round looking at classrooms and reading children's work on the wall. He's still around 12 hours later, still walking the building. And if you pass the school on Sundays, you can see his car there."

That's fine as far as it goes. What worries this teacher, though, is that it doesn't end there. "He clearly wants people to talk to. So if you're there in your room when he comes around, he's pleased to see you and eager to discuss everything - children's work and individual progress. And he also seems to be looking for support and approval for his plans and visions."

As a result, those staff able to do it - and they're mostly the younger ones with no family ties - try to make sure they're there to be seen when the head does his rounds. There are Brownie points for being around early or late, or both.

"So," our teacher goes on, "the feeling now is that he has a clique around him -young turks if you like - eager supporters and disciples. Sometimes they all go to the pub. Frankly, I neither have the time nor the inclination to do that -and so I feel that I, and some of the others like me, are being pushed to the margins."

It's a problem that Sir Kevin Satchwell, head of the highly successful Thomas Telford school in Shropshire, recognises. "There's a culture of expecting excessive work and goodwill," he says. "And then you're almost under a moral obligation to give support."

To counteract this, he tries to build a community in which people work very hard while they're in school, but aren't expected to give hours of their time afterwards. "It wouldn't comfort me to know that I had teachers working until seven, eight, nine at night at school," he says. "I want them to be out doing something different."

At Thomas Telford, staff finish teaching at 4pm, and then stay to 5pm. "You need a businesslike approach," he says. "You work till five, using the time wisely. If you need to stay till quarter past to finish some marking, then don't take anything home."

So there are no parents' evenings at Thomas Telford. "What's the point?"

asks Sir Kevin, "when I give thema report every three and a half weeks and they can come and see a teacher by appointment? Where else in industry would someone be expected to work all day and then stay till 10 at night?"

For him, it's a matter of the head's duty of care to staff. "The head is the gatekeeper to the staff's working conditions," he says. "I would say that the head has a major responsibility to ensure that members of staff have a proper life outside school."

The aim, always, is to maintain a healthy, enthusiastic team, tired at the end of the day but not exhausted and stressed. To encourage overwork, whether explicitly or by tacit acceptance, may risk the well-being of people who are vital to the school.

"What does the head do when they burn out? Where does the responsibility lie then?" he asks.

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