Wishing for a heavenly workload? Dream on…

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Teachers are their own worst enemies. The impossible standards they set themselves mean that overwork will always be inevitable

Almost everyone agrees there is a workload issue in teaching in England. Numerous causes are cited: the relentlessness of new initiatives by recent governments; the flood of regulations flowing from the Department for Education; the real or purported demands of schools inspectorate Ofsted. Hence the recent announcement of the government’s workload review groups. Then there’s the tyranny of successive testing, tracking and reporting regimes, plus expectations of ever-improving results from politicians and pressure from headteachers worried about their own security and that of their schools.

There is no doubt that too many teachers are working too many hours, often on tasks that they see as pointless distractions from their core purpose. But although a lessening of accountability pressures would be welcome, would that resolve the workload issue? I suspect only partially.

The fact is that, since the late 1960s, when the earliest research into the issue was undertaken, most teachers have worked long hours and carried heavy workloads. More than 20 years ago, a University of Warwick study found that infant and junior teachers spent an average of almost 53 hours a week on professional activity, with just over a third spent on actually teaching children, and almost a third on preparation and marking. The same researchers found a largely similar picture when investigating the work patterns of secondary teachers.

Plus ça change. Two decades on, teachers still work long hours but the tasks undertaken are likely to be less satisfying, more bureaucratic and more concerned with compliance than in the halcyon pre-national-curriculum, pre-Ofsted days. If accountability pressures were removed altogether or greatly reduced, would there still be a workload problem? Yes, there would, but of a subtly different kind.

The problem is that most teachers, quite rightly, are dreamers. They have dreams, aspirations and ideals that can never be fully realised in this imperfect world. For example, they want to do the best by their pupils, but what constitutes “best” and would they ever know if it were achieved? They want to help each pupil meet their potential, but what if the notion of “potential” is meaningless and how can anyone know when it has been met? Teachers want to give their pupils fulfilling lives, yet they are only one influence among many, and is it appropriate to place any single notion of “fulfilment” on others with different life experiences?

Undone by idealism

In terms of their professional practice, most teachers aspire to the kinds of ideals captured by Ofsted as “outstanding” or at least “good”. For example, most teachers want to have consistently high expectations for all the children in their care, but how high is “high” and how realistic is it to entertain such expectations for every single pupil?

Teachers want their teaching to be never less than good, but what does that mean and can it realistically be achieved in every single lesson? They want to intervene with optimum effect to develop pupils’ knowledge, but with the best will in the world – and even with all the time – can teachers ever truly get close to understanding their pupils’ minds? And even if they could, how would they know their influence had been optimal?

And so on for other “outstanding” criteria articulated by Ofsted, embodied in official documentation on self-improving schools or bullet-pointed in so many staff handbooks. However, taken literally (and how else should we take them?), these idealistic criteria cannot be exhibited on a daily basis by fallible teachers or, for that matter, judged by fallible line managers. They embody an ideal of teaching excellence in a world that does not and cannot possibly exist. Attempting to meet them fully induces guilt, which in turn generates stress, strain and overwork.

The vast majority of teachers expect too much of themselves. They aspire to unrealistic goals. They always fall short – and deep down they realise that they do. They know there is always more they can do for their pupils. They know that what they and their schools provide can never be good enough for the young people in their care. They acknowledge that their schools can never be perfect. Inevitably, they feel guilty about their shortcomings when they fail to meet unrealistic aspirations. Consciously or unconsciously, they try to assuage their guilt through hard work and long hours. And they succeed, at least to a limited extent, but at a cost to themselves.

What is to be done? Teachers and the government itself could have more realistic expectations of schools and the people who work in them. That would ease some of the guilt, but it would also restrict the “dreaming” element that encourages creativity, fuels educational progress and makes teaching so exciting, fascinating and unpredictable. More realistically, teachers could retain the high ideals that brought them into the profession, but acknowledge that although they will fail to reach their destination, the journey is worthwhile in itself – especially with all the unexpected spin-offs and benefits for themselves and their pupils.

Whatever course of action is taken, and even if the workload pressures resulting from hyper-accountability are removed, an element of guilt is unavoidable and has to be lived with. In terms of workloads, most teachers are their own worst enemies – understandably so, inevitably so, irretrievably so and rightly so, in my opinion.

Professor Colin Richards is a former primary teacher and Ofsted inspector

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