Today it's time to take stock of all the hours we give

27th February 2009 at 00:00

Over the last couple of years I have noticed a marked increase in the number of teachers telling me that they are concerned about the stress caused by long working hours, unreasonable demands and bureaucracy. Without exception, they tell me their main concern is that, despite their best efforts, their high levels of stress could be transmitted to pupils.

Their concerns have been worsened by the news last year from Unicef that we have children who are among the unhappiest in the world - and that this is exacerbated by subjecting them to an unacceptable testing regime. Teachers worry that the increase in their stress has a detrimental effect on the whole education system. For skilled, committed professionals, this thought is devastating.

Taking work home interferes with your domestic life: home should be a place to relax, yet it has increasingly become an extension of the classroom.

It's true that teachers have always worked long hours. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, many of us spent hours on curriculum development, extra-curricular activities, and new and exciting forms of assessment. In inner London, where I taught, many of us were involved in writing and publishing curriculum materials through teachers' centres which existed for every subject. We wrote CSE mode 3 examinations, which were teacher set and moderated. We did all this willingly, often giving up whole weekends, because we had professional autonomy.

It's not like that now. Many teachers complain of burdensome bureaucracy, endless paperwork and pressure from within and outside school leaving them fatigued, and frustrated. Teachers and lecturers now work more unpaid and unrecognised additional hours than any other workers. According to a School Teachers' Review Body's workload survey last year, primary classroom teachers worked an average of 52.2 hours per week, while their colleagues in secondary schools worked almost 50.

For many, this means no whole evening or weekend to enjoy on their own or with their family. The figures for heads and deputy heads for both sectors are even higher.

There needs to be a clear cut-off point between work and home. In Scotland teachers benefit from contractual arrangements which limit their working time to 35 hours per week. But in England and Wales there are no such limits. This leaves many in the profession with no road-map to help them establish and maintain a good work-life balance.

It is one thing to take on extra tasks out of normal working hours voluntarily, but it is completely unacceptable when such long hours become a necessity. The Government says teachers are entitled to work-life balance. Yet the research shows that they are among the most stressed of professional groups. If teachers are to avoid the sort of mental health problems that affect one in four of the population, then that they need to have that balance - and should begin to take the steps that will win it.

For every teacher who gets into work earlier than necessary, who works through lunch breaks or completes hours of marking at home, today is a day to remember. More than 5 million people regularly do unpaid overtime, giving their employers Pounds 26.9 billion of free work each year. If people worked all their unpaid overtime at the start of the year, the first day they would be paid would be today, February 27.

It is for that reason that the TUC has called for today to be Work Your Proper Hours day. It gives us all a chance to take stock. No one would want teachers to be clock-watchers but everyone would surely want them to feel professionally autonomous.

It is a matter of regret that the profession, even in a recession, is not necessarily seen as an attractive career and certainly not as a job for life. The onerous workload and comparatively poor pay means graduates are looking elsewhere for employment. The lack of professional autonomy is certainly one of the other factors, as is the targets and testing culture, which has created so much more (many would say unnecessary and unhelpful) work.

It really is time for the Government to take seriously teachers' working hours. Additionally, it should begin to trust teachers more. The hours spent on planning and preparation would feel a lot less like a burden if teachers had professional autonomy over both the curriculum and assessment.

Because teachers' long working hours may not technically be described as overtime, it does not make excessive working hours any more acceptable. We have probably all heard comments such as "Teachers work only from 9 till 3.30 and have all those holidays"! Of course, the reality is far from that.

Work Your Proper Hours Day gives us a focus for the campaign to win a decent work-life balance. So, if you're in school today, get to work at a reasonable hour, take a proper lunch break, leave work promptly and concentrate on your life outside work. Focusing attention on limiting workload today may be the start of seeing what life could be like with a good work-life balance all year round.

A refreshed and enthusiastic teacher will be so much better in the classroom than a fatigued and frustrated one.

- To find out more go to

Christine Blower, Acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

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