Workload fuels the jobs crisis

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Teachers are more worried about time than money, and their contracts are in urgent need of review, says Phil Revell

It's awfully easy to forget. I'd phoned the school to discuss the latest Government initiative and was deep in conversation with a head of department.

"Have to go," she said, "there's the bell." The enormity of what I'd done hit me as I put the phone down. I'd stolen her break, that sanity-giving 15 minutes, when teachers marshal their energies before marching down to D block to do battle with the mob.

Teachers teach, and while they are teaching they can't be doing anything else. Interviews with reporters have to be crammed into their free time.

But the list of things competing to occupy that precious free time just keeps growing: administration, professional development, performance management, preparation and marking, reports, meetings and more reports.

Workload is the biggest single issue facing schools, as last week's TES survey amply demonstrated, showing a profession where 60-hour weeks and weekend working are the norm. No one should be surprised at the recent recruitment crisis. Kids see the reality every day, so why on earth would they want to join the treadmill?

Ministers think the answer lies with pay, but people leaving the profession don't give pay as the main attraction in their shiny new jobs. They cite opportunities for flexible working and creativity. Teachers in post don't give pay as their main source of complaint. The survey mirrored previous findings - the answer given time and again is workload.

Yet conditions of service have been a no-go area for government. There are "no plans" to examine the teachers' contract.

The contract is a nonsense which was inflicted on the profession in 1988 by the then education secretary Kenneth Baker. It was only accepted at the time because the unions had exhausted the willingness of their members to continue a debilitating 18-month campaign of action.

Does anyone really believe that a modern professio can work to these annual conditions - 1,265 hours, 190 days in contact, five days' training a year?

The 1,265 hours amounts to a 32-hour week and leaves barely enough time for parents' evenings, never mind administration and planning. Five days a year of professional development during a period of unprecedented curriculum change is ludicrous.

And where is the limit on teachers' working time? The EU Working Time directive allows a maximum 48-hour week, but the teachers' contract allows for "such additional hours as may be necessary". The result is a procession of figures staggering home at the end of the day bowed under shopping bags full of marking.

That day itself has lengthened, with school car parks full at 8am and teachers still in meetings hours after lessons have ended.

Those outside the job see long holidays as compensation for all this. But in the contract there is just time when teachers are not in school. In reality, day after day of the holiday is spent on school work.

In effect, the contract means that schools can be operated as if teachers' time was an elastic commodity. There's no incentive to prioritise or be efficient with time.

The result has been the highest workplace stress in Britain, with 12,000 calls to Teacherline, at least three work-related suicides and a profession where nearly 60 per cent would not recommend the job to young people.

What's been missing is any real inquiry into how teachers should be working in the 21st century. Does a 38-week year make sense? Should some holiday time be lost to allow for professional development and administration? Why isn't preparation and marking time built into the contract? Why can't schools be staffed to cover absences and so remove the need for supply cover? And why are teachers expected to do all manner of extra-curricular work on a voluntary basis? If these things are valued why aren't they rewarded?

The forthcoming election campaign could be a chance to debate the real issues, like contracts.

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