The Easter bunny, in the somewhat uncuddly form of the Department for Education, brought teachers an early present on Saturday: the long-awaited findings of the workload committees into marking, planning and teaching resources, along with data management.
The timing of their publication was very deliberate: it gave Nicky Morgan something positive to announce as she faced a hostile NASUWT conference, the first Conservative education secretary to speak there in almost 20 years.
In doing so, she (perhaps knowingly) evoked memories of another strong Tory woman who didn’t fear taking on the unions – one Margaret Thatcher, who once held the very same ministerial position. And thus, the Conservative leadership campaign begins in earnest.
The appearance was brave and marked a distinct change in approach, as the Nice Nicky who once stroked teachers turned into Nasty Nicky as she ruffled their feathers and berated them for being too negative about their own profession and about retention and recruitment.
It’s hard, however, to separate retention and recruitment from workload: they are inextricably intertwined. It is the “crushing” workload that is the main reason cited by teachers who are seriously considering leaving the profession. Their numbers have increased to the highest level yet – nearly three-quarters – according to a survey of 13,000 teachers by the NASUWT teaching union.
When they do leave, some are even not going very far: the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that 15 per cent stay in education and become teaching assistants. One teacher recently summed up the issue succinctly: “I love teaching but I hate my job.”
'Answers, not solutions'
To be fair to Morgan, she recognised the magnitude of the problem quite early on in her tenure and moved swiftly to put the workload committees in place. One year on, their reports have provided answers but not solutions. As deputy head Michael Tidd points out, all three amount to saying “the same thing: you’re probably wasting your time on unnecessary things, so decide what is unnecessary and stop doing it”.
Morgan has accepted all the recommendations in full, but that’s easy to say when most of the onus is on schools and teachers. And, as both teacher unions have pointed out, they are impotent without a mandate.
Leaving it to individual schools to decide how to implement the recommendations will create an even bigger problem. But there are only two levers to pull here: cash and accountability. There’s no cash, so it has to be accountability such as using Ofsted, as suggested by Sam Freedman in his TES column last week.
One of the members of the marking group, educational consultant David Didau, also believes Ofsted is the answer, by holding schools to account for teacher wellbeing.
He suggests a national system where, when teachers leave a job, they also leave a write-up explaining why – a kind of Trip Advisor for teaching staff. “With the best will in the world, you can’t rely on the milk of human kindness to see through much-needed reforms,” he says.
That would make the slimmed-down Ofsted that everyone has been talking about unlikely.
If the government thought that the publication of the reports would see the end of the workload problem, they were wrong. This is just the beginning.
This is an article from the 1 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here