United our workload will fall

28th March 2008 at 00:00
Are teachers victims of their own diligence? It seems, when it comes to putting in extra hours or taking on tasks they are meant to delegate, they just can't help themselves.

One conference delegate this week told how her school had attempted to restore worklife balance by closing at 5.30pm, only to find teachers sneaking work home.

A study by Cambridge University has found that some teachers yearn for the pre-workforce agreement days when they experienced "collegial moments" chatting round the photocopier (page 5). Even now, many primary teachers continue to put up classroom displays because it gives them professional satisfaction and the chance to discuss and evaluate children's work.

Small wonder, then, that teachers' workloads have scarcely changed despite workforce reforms. According to the Cambridge study, commissioned by the (anti-agreement) National Union of Teachers, primary teachers are working two hours a week more than they did in 2002. But a rival study for the (pro-agreement) NASUWT found that, on average, primary and secondary teachers work an hour or two less each week than five years ago.

Taken together, these two studies suggest that conscientious teachers are working as hard as ever. Why? The obvious answer is that they care so much about what they do. This collective bout of workaholism is even undermining union activism because teachers are too busy to be union reps.

Of course, judging from the whingeing and threats of strikes and working-to-rule coming from the conferences, you'd think we were heading back to the bad old days of the 1980s, when teachers were damaged and divided by taking militant action. Even today, the two main unions can't agree on what to get militant about, making it likely that talk of action on pay or academies will melt away like snowfall at Easter.

The profession should unite behind common concerns, particularly about disruptive pupils, low-level misbehaviour and workload. A profession that is truly united would even make progress on reducing class sizes, something that would greatly improve teachers' quality of life.

Such unity, alas, is some way off. But let's not be gloomy. As the Cambridge study points out, good teachers know how to be subversive, refuse to be victims, and are full of initiative and self-belief.

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