There is no workload crisis - just politics

24th April 2015 at 01:00
As the government tries to placate teachers with promises to reduce stress, we must ask what the activists are really fighting for

Workload is the word of the moment. It has achieved the ultimate accolade: a government inquiry. The Workload Challenge, instituted by Nicky Morgan early in her time as education secretary, famously gathered tens of thousands of responses from teachers and generated concrete policy proposals from the Department for Education.

Given the grip that workload has acquired on the education debate, it is perhaps inevitable that such proposals were deemed insufficient by teacher representatives. But anyone who attended the TES pre-election hustings of current and potential education ministers could see that all the parties had taken strong views on the issue.

This is not something to be celebrated. The rise of the workload discussion risks reversing the hard work of politicians from both major parties over the past 30 years to reorient discussion about education so that children, and not teachers, are its subject. This is not to deny that many teachers feel their workload is too heavy, but three aspects of the debate need further examination: first, the evidence for a system-wide crisis; second, the belief that government can do very much about any valid problems; and third (and most significant), the extent to which the complaints of teacher-activists run counter to the real purpose of their work.

It is my contention that the notion of a workload crisis overstates the nature of teachers' working conditions in a bid to push the government to adopt the kind of regressive anti-accountability ideas that laid waste to large swathes of the English education system in the two decades before the 1988 Education Reform Act.

The evidence for a crisis is varied, and often badly sourced and unreliable. Much of the media attention has focused on unions' polls of their members, in which self-selected activists respond to often leading questions. Activists are also prone to misrepresenting the evidence from other sources: the recent claim that 40 per cent of trainee teachers leave the profession after one year was generated by the kind of sketchy maths that would have the unions howling in anger if it came from politicians. The real number is closer to 9 per cent, a figure that hasn't changed for 20 years.

The trouble with `trust'

Much of the evidence for a workload crisis tells us only that some teachers consider it to be a problem. But that is hardly surprising: teaching is a demanding, important, front-line role, which is remunerated well and in line with other professions. Jobs with big consequences are always accompanied by stress.

However, even if much of the evidence is anecdotal, it is clear that some teachers, perhaps many, are being asked to carry out tasks of little educational value: triple marking, multi-page plans for every lesson, enforcing badly constructed behaviour management policies and reacting to Chinese whispers about what Ofsted wants. These things happen and they shouldn't. But the existence of absurd demands on some teachers' time does not equate to a nationwide crisis.

Nor does it mean that the government is best placed to fix the problems. When workload crosses the line from legitimately demanding to unmanageable, it is often the result of unskilled interaction between poor-quality school leaders and a badly communicating schools inspectorate. As many successful, high-achieving schools demonstrate, overwork is certainly not a necessary function of an accountable education system. Better training for middle and senior leaders and greater interest from Ofsted in how its pronouncements impact on schools would be far more effective in tackling workload blackspots.

Education activists are keen to assert that it is impossible to run 20,000 schools from Whitehall (and the major parties agree). There is no reason to suppose that this applies any less to workload than it does to direct governance.

Unless, of course, politicians are prepared to adopt the solution pushed by workload campaigners - to "trust" and "respect" teachers more. This seems a fine proposition in the abstract, but the reality of what teacher-activists think this requires is stark: abolishing Ofsted, scrapping new and existing accountability measures and, fundamentally, proclaiming that what happens in schools is a matter for teachers, not the public.

Yet activists have been demanding exactly these things, on a wide variety of grounds, since the Thatcher government. And if every problem can apparently only be solved by removing the accountability system that was constructed in the wake of devastating educational failure, it suggests that this is a solution in search of a problem, and will result in a return to schools failing their most deprived children.

Dangerous discourse

This is why the workload discourse is so dangerous, because this time, a problem has been found that is accepted by leading politicians. If this were solely about workload, would so many teachers be hostile to phonics, despite the clear evidence that it contributes to improving students' reading? Of course not, because teachers' workloads would be substantially reduced if all pupils learned to read properly at primary school.

But the objection isn't to workload per se. It is an ideological objection to the nature of the work - in this case, objecting that a practical rather than bohemian approach to teaching children to read undermines a "love of reading".

A conviction that the purpose of education is damaged by phonics (or strict classroom behaviour management protocols, or schools outside the local authority system, and so on) may be a perfectly valid belief to hold, but it is not one that most parents agree with, nor is it one that successive governments have accepted, in large part because such utopian beliefs were responsible for catastrophic education failures in the past.

The government should examine the substance of complaints from people who profoundly disagree with the model of education they are being asked to provide. When activists throw around claims about the numbers of people leaving the profession, politicians should not be callous, but they should consider that a teacher's decision to leave an environment with which they are wildly out-of-sync is not necessarily a tragedy if the government is confident of what it is asking schools to do.

Ministers should be wary of feeding a discourse of workload crisis when the only actions they can take are likely to be either too small to be noticeable or so vast that they reverse trends of accountability built up over decades. After all, this accountability ensures that an elected government can - as it is both entitled and required to do - impose its vision of education and be held accountable for its delivery.

John Blake is a history teacher in London and an education writer

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