Raised voices are calling for respect
The excessive overwork faced by the majority of teachers is very much back in the headlines, and there is imminent industrial action to prove it. In truth, it has never really gone away. It is now clear that Michael Gove's early promises to liberate teachers were hollow. Indeed, teacher stress and excessive workload have undoubtedly worsened in recent years.
We can turn to TES's teacher workload survey at the end of last term if we need further proof. Teachers have the longest hours, behind "production managers and directors of mining and energy", regularly clocking up an average of 56 hours a week during term time. Some 70 per cent of teachers said that during the past three months they had sacrificed a night's sleep to work, while more than three-quarters said workload was having a damaging effect on their health. More than half worried about the impact of their jobs on their personal lives. In short, under the smooth veneer of the government's expansion of academies and free schools, the teaching profession's workload is out of control.
With such stark evidence, it has rarely been more pressing to take a proper look at the causes of teacher stress and its relationship with teacher workload.
It is key at this point to understand that excessive workload is not the only problem; a job in which you are bullied but which takes up only a relatively reasonable amount of the day is more damaging than spending a longer amount of time on a job you love. Indeed, you are far more likely to be effective in an enjoyable job than a corrosive one. This is probably axiomatic, but sometimes the obvious is worth stating.
Recently I completed a study for Education International with my University of Cambridge colleague David Frost on teacher self-esteem, voice and leadership. Its focus was on how teachers can exercise leadership, influence policy, shape professional practice and build professional knowledge. Teacher workshops established for our study in 12 countries offered clear evidence that this is what teachers want. Teachers feel strongly that they should own and develop their own pedagogy. There was complete agreement that they should have influence over the curriculum and professional development. Teachers also want to be involved in the process of school evaluation and in evaluating each other's performance.
And, overwhelmingly, teachers want their collective voice to be heard. One comment from a teacher in Essex pretty much summed up the aspirations of teachers throughout the world. He said he wanted to be able to "influence what happens in the school as a whole, collaborate with others, seek guidance and offer suggestions that will be valued".
It is clear that these are not the views of a clock-watching, whingeing profession. Neither are such views isolated. Teacher perception surveys over the past two decades have yielded remarkably similar views. Teachers' wish to have their voices heard has been predominant in those surveys. However, the debate on working hours and conditions is yet to connect with this equally important issue of enhancing self-efficacy.
There are examples of where this has happened. In Ontario, the high-performing Canadian province, the teaching union argues that individual and collective professional self-worth is as important to teachers as realistic boundaries placed on workload. Indeed, it defines good principals as those who involve teachers in decision-making while also limiting teacher workload.
I believe that in this country we need the same approach, one that recognises that teachers' sense of powerlessness and lack of voice is the primary cause of stress. Losing control of workload is often worse than workload itself. In the UK, the teaching profession is rapidly becoming Balkanised and ignored. The demand for a strong, self-confident teaching profession is growing, but it should also include proposals for working conditions that place importance on high levels of teacher empowerment. After all, these are the ingredients of outstanding education systems, as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reminds us. The restoration of teachers' professional self-confidence has never been more important. The success of our education system relies on it.
John Bangs is an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge and a former head of education for the NUT.