Overburdened and undervalued

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
As the McCrone report on teachers' pay and conditions was published, Raymond Ross visited the Education Minister's old secondary school to talk to staff about their workloads.

Teachers are deeply worried about their working conditions and about how their image has been dented. Yet they recognise that standards are higher than they were 25 years ago and that they do a better job now, says the assistant headteacher of the Children and Education Minister's old school.

"There are times when the workload is an absolute nightmare," says George MacDonald, of Greenock High school in Inverclyde, "and you can't separate the workload issue from public perceptions, from the way schools are represented in the media. But I think this goes right to the top, to Government.

"It is impossible to continually raise standards. We are dealing with human beings, not machinery.

"It's not easy to measure how good a teacher is and yet we're being measured all the time."

Speaking to the staff at Sam Galbraith's old school, you can't help but get the impression that teaching is a profession which feels itself under siege.

"On the day that McCrone came to meet Inverclyde headteachers we had all received three separate reports from the Scottish Executive to which we had to respond that day!," says Greenock High's headteacher, Catherine Gibson.

"I think you could fairly say that innovation fatigue has hit the profession."

In the secondary sector, part of this fatigue can be put down to the implementation of Higher Still.

"Workload is a colossal problem and it gets worse every year," says Iain Weir, principal teacher of physics at Greenock High. "Not a year goes by when there's not a new implementation.

"Higher Still courses are onerous on staff and, because of the national assessment banks, it has become a wholly unenjoyable experience for the pupil. Excessive testing needs to be reduced across all departments," he says.

The principal teacher of English, Felicity Jackson, feels that the increase in workload in recent years is "hugely beneficial to the pupils". She does a lot more forward planning, feels that courses are better balanced and that the profiling of pupils from S1 to S6 and the extra work involved in study-support sessions and twilight classes are all to the good.

"But there is no recognition of the increase," she says. "Trying out new things is the lifeblood of education, but a tired workforce cannot innovate and that has a knock-on effect."

The knock-on not only affects professional life but personal too. "I love my job," says Felicity Jackson, "but my workload causes friction at home."

"I'm in at 8am," says Iain Weir. "I take work home at night and weekends. The administrative burden and the inevitable daily interruptions mean I have to plan classes at night.

"The pressure comes with trying to teach all your classes and implement 5-14, Higher Still and so on. It's the desperate pace of implementation. It's an unrealistic timescale."

The introduction of information and communication technology is another pressure frequently mentioned, with concern over the lack of time and the lack of training to keep up with ICT innovations.

"I'm a self-trained computer person," says Catherine Gibson. "We're not using the technology to its best ability. It comes down to practicalities. We need more sockets in classrooms to plug in our computers.

"What I really need is a school bursar or a facilities manager, someone who can deal with issues like this.

"We're about to undertake the rewiring of the whole school and you have to deal with all the practical details of this, on top of the flood of reports that come in and the constant need to innovate.

"You need a year to prepare for a new course, a year to implement it and it takes another two to three years for it to settle in. So other things do have to be shelved."

George MacDonald also feels more administrative back-up is needed. "I'd really like more clerical assistance to take some of the more mundane work off my hands, such as all the admin involved in setting up work experience programmes for our pupils."

He also believes there is a need for more back-up in terms of discipline and that both should be a priority for the local authority. "We have young people who offend in school and are intransigent and we're not backed up by the council," he says. "I spend my time dealing with a handful of pupils constantly.

"Young people like this need an alternative to school. The school environment doesn't suit them and it's beyond reason that staff should have to cope with them."

Iain Weir agrees: "They don't want to be here. They're forced into it. The curriculum is inappropriate and too rigid for them. Higher Still is too late. These pupils need something embedded in S3."

Discipline, late-coming and non-attendance are problems which Janis Kinnaird, a business studies teacher, has to deal with on a daily basis in her other role as a guidance teacher. She feels she needs less class-contact time to fulfil this duty.

"You can either be a really good guidance teacher or a really good class teacher. But you can't be both in the time given.

"It means an exceptional amount of work at home. It cuts into family time a lot more than people appreciate.

"All you need is one crisis with one pupil and everything for that day has to be shelved," she says.

More time and some respite from continuous innovation are repeated like mantras by all the staff at Greenock High, along with calls for more staff (particularly in core subjects), smaller class sizes (especially in English) and more learning support.

George MacDonald lays some of the blame for the pressure at the doors of central and local government and class teachers complain that they are being asked to cure society's ills. Catherine Gibson also believes that schools are being asked to serve too many masters.

"Managing workload is an issue which involves the whole governance of education. We are serving four masters at the moment: local authorities, HMIs, national government and our community.

"We need to have national control of education but with local authorities working almost as quality assurance inspectors.

"HMIs have power without responsibility. An inspection is just a snapshot of your school. It's not based on research. The HMI ethos is about whip cracking for the Government and they tend to ignore the socio-economic factors affecting your catchment area.

"National control of education is going to come. Even in terms of training, small local authorities like Inverclyde don't have the resources to provide headteachers with management training of the level we did get from the old Strathclyde region.

"You have to take the long view and you need a team you can trust, a team you rate. I have a good team but it's a very lonely job."


Jane Whinnett: headteacher, Balgreen Nursery school, Edinburgh

'My workload problem revolves around the frustration of interruption and the need for more secretarialadministration support. I often have to answer the door and the phone, even when I'm with the children.

Take the case of the toilet seat. I'm in the classroom and a man walks past the window, his head framed in a toilet seat, a new one he's come to fit as it turns out. I have to let him in and stay with him in the toilet as the children don't know him. A totally bizarre situation but I can't leave him in a nursery toilet on his own and there's no one else free.

I have 0.3 of my post as non-teaching time while 0.5 would be better for the children, because they'd get the same class teacher every day. What I have at the moment is "written continuity" rather than real continuity.

In a nursery school children rely on you as an emotional support. It's not good for you to be settling them in one day, then not being there the next because you're at a meeting.

I want to be a headteacher and not a manager. I believe head teachers should teach, but we do need more time to address educational developments.

There's a lack of staff development time in general. At the moment if you are a reflective practitioner, you bring a huge workload on yourself.' Gerry McFarlane, P7 teacher, St Mary's RC Primary, West Calder, West Lothian

'I'm three years in teaching and already looking for different options because of pay and conditions.

Teachers are undervalued and there is low morale. Things which affect my own morale include hearing parents and the media belittle the skills and workload of teachers, teachers being blamed for the ills of society, dealing with violent children and aggressive parents, being expected to learn new skills after a day's work and being paid an inadequate salary.

Pressure is intense and increasing in terms of paper work, national testing and target setting, increasingly complex forward planning, writing report cards and recording formal evidence for case conferences and referrals, keeping up-to-date with educational developments, coping with difficult and disruptive children and being involved in extra-curricular activities.

Demands are unrealistic and I feel for those teachers who suffer in silence because there's a reluctance to admit things are getting to you.

Doing unpaid extra work - for example, school camps, homework clubs, writing policies, planning and delivering in-service training, coping with the implications of educational research and learning ICT skills - is clearly unfair.

For the sake of the children in my class, I want to ask that nothing extra is added to our job without proper staffing, training and funding.' * Norman Dodds, headteacher, Duns Primary, Berwickshire, Scottish Borders

'When we write our school plans, we're told to keep our targets realistic and manageable and to allocate the necessary resources to support our action plans. Why, then, does the Scottish Executive not practise what it preaches?

Initiatives and documents on a bewildering variety of subjects, many worthwhile, have come to us at some speed over the past few years, consuming many man-hours. Rather incredibly, none take into account a school's ability to manage and there has been no corresponding increase in management time to accommodate these new and additional tasks. Is this smart?

As a head required to implement these initiatives, I've had to reduce the time I spend on other tasks. This means I'm much less involved and visible in the day-to-day life of the school, to the point where I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own school!

The need to meet a succession of deadlines means that speed is of the essence and tasks are done with less care and attention than previously and some tasks simply remain undone.

Perhaps most frustrating of all are the missed opportunities to reduce workload by offering schools ways of managing on a system-wide basis. There are several areas, such as national testing, where there is the same requirement upon schools throughout Scotland yet no mechanism for managing these has been provided. Not only does this mean that all schools set about inventing the same wheel, but there is a lack of consistency in the wheels which are invented.

I think most school staff readily accept that their job brings with it a considerable workload. Most, however, would welcome a reduction in initiatives, an increase in human resources and some system-wide solutions to make their task manageable and achievable.'

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