'We must stop trying to apply a sticking plaster to the gaping wound that is teacher workload'

We need a root-and-branch review of the professionalism, accountability and expectations placed upon the teacher workforce. Anything less is a waste of time

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Damian Hinds, the new education secretary, has "got it". He knows that teacher supply is falling off a cliff. Applications for teacher training are down a quarter on last year. The government has not met its teacher training targets for the past five years – and are certainly not going to this year.

But it is not just teacher recruitment that is the government’s problem. Teacher retention is even more serious as wastage rates (teachers putting down their whiteboard markers and leaving the profession) are rising at every career stage – and most worryingly right at the start of teachers’ careers, after three to five years.

Mr Hinds is acting on his worries. Last week, speaking to school leaders at the Association of School and College Leaders conference, he said: “We need to get back to the essence of successful teaching – strip away the workload that doesn’t add value and give teachers the time and space to focus on what actually matters…trust teachers to teach.”

These are very welcome words. It is good that the education secretary wants to trust teachers to teach. The problem for Mr Hinds is, however, that we have been here before – and in recent memory.

Workload challenge

It was in 2014 that Nicky Morgan, herself then a new education secretary, launched her workload challenge. Some 44,000 teachers responded to her invitation to tell her just what it was that was driving them to excessive and exhausting working hours. Guidance was produced on lesson planning, marking and data collection.

But it has not made a difference. A recent Public Accounts Committee report, Retaining and Developing the Teaching Workforce, noted that only half of England’s schools had used the workload tracking tools. A survey of ATL teaching union members (now the NEU teaching union) in 2015 found that 80 per cent of teachers judged their workload to still be unmanageable a year after the workload challenge was launched.

There is a tendency, we all have it, to stick to well-worn paths. Or to put it another way, to try harder to make what we are already doing work better. It is very challenging to be more ambitious, to consider larger issues and to go off the well-trodden path. But this is what the government has to do now. It cannot carry on carrying on, with its current approach to workload reduction.

Because it is operating on a deficit model. The focus in the workload challenge was on what teachers can stop doing. This goes some way – but as the results show – nowhere near far enough. Because the unproductive work that teachers stop doing is, too often, replaced by something else, often equally unproductive – but the "next best thing" to transform standards of education.

So, we have to look at the workload epidemic from another angle. We have to define just what it is that teachers should be doing. We have to define what the core professional skills, knowledge and attributes should be owned by teachers.

Shared agreement needed

This is not going to be easy. Education in England is more highly politicised and opinions more sharply divided on teacher professionalism than virtually any other country, barring the USA. Just because the task is going to be hard, however, does not mean that we should not try.

Until we come to a shared agreement on the core elements of teacher professionalism, teachers will continue to be under the cosh from pressures from all sides to jump – and the profession's response will continue to be "how high?"

Once we have a widely agreed consensus on the core knowledge, skills and attributes that teachers must possess, other questions will follow. What should be every teachers’ entitlement to continuing professional development? What should be the mechanisms to hold teachers accountable for the work that they do – and is the current accountability system, at any level, fit for purpose? What career pathways would support teacher professionalism and keep teachers in the profession for longer? What employment conditions and pay would underpin teacher professionalism? 

This is difficult, demanding work. It would involve a wide range of stakeholders – teacher unions for sure, but also employers, parents, academics and the government.

The current approach to tackling workload is a sticking plaster. We need to stop teachers getting injured through excessive workload in the first place – and this modest proposal is aimed at doing just that.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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