As we approach the Easter round of annual conferences for the teaching unions, it’s hardly surprising that the minds of teachers and the education press turn to working conditions – and workload in particular. Mary Bousted’s article, "We must stop trying to apply a sticking plaster to the gaping wound that is teacher workload", calling for “a root-and-branch review of the professionalism, accountability and expectations placed upon the teacher workforce”, is timely.
We have still not reached the critical mass of enlightened school leaders and teachers that is needed for far-reaching change. Consequently, teacher recruitment remains low and retention needs to be much higher if beleaguered schools are going to provide a good education for the increasing numbers of pupils entering their gates.
If this doesn’t unite the profession in a concerted effort to find the right work-life balance, to hold on to our longer-serving teachers and entice new ones into the fold, then we will continue to see even more classes taught by non-specialists or a chain of supply teachers, with all the adverse outcomes for equality of provision entailed.
I am not in favour of an unadulterated gloom-fest, but I am more than mildly irritated by articles that tell us that it’s our perceptions that are the problem. At least Emma Kell, who wrote in Tes, “The biggest crisis isn’t workload – teachers don’t mind hard work – it’s the erosion of trust", is a serving teacher. But she should know better. For teachers who work every evening working until 11.30pm to get the marking and planning done, rationing themselves to a two-hour break with spouse and children, the problem really is workload getting in the way of family life. Trust is a more abstract entity higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
The elephant in the room is the inability of the teaching profession to acknowledge that it is all right to have a family and a private life with time for both. In other walks of life, employees get time off in lieu for the extra work they do. My son was required to stay until after 9pm to support an important meeting – and was able to put this overtime together with flexi-time to have a day off.
Somehow it is embarrassing to admit that teachers don’t spend the night hanging upside down in the school broom cupboard, waiting for the next day to begin, after all our supervisory work, marking, planning and evaluations are done.
Finding a work-life balance
Employers are always understanding when teachers face personal family crises and they can be endlessly sympathetic and accommodating when staff need to rush to the aid of an elderly relative or sick child. But what matters is that all too often the onerous demands of the job mean that children grow up too fast and parents feel they have missed out on those precious early years. Relatives are neglected because teachers are too tired, stressed and overworked during term-time to make any but the most fleeting of visits between holidays.
And young teachers, quite rightly, feel that they are missing out on forming networks of friends and finding their significant others.
So, for the record, let it be noted that teachers are working harder than ever before. And let me count the ways:
- Each year they spend hours filling in personal development plans, drawing together the evidence of all the written interventions and initiatives they have undertaken throughout the year. This will enable them to receive the paltry reward determined by the government pay policy. On this front alone, they work harder to receive what used to be theirs automatically – and some will not even receive that because of the dire state of funding in some schools.
- They write more material than ever before. Teaching, it seems, is an endless production line of specially tailored PowerPoints. Some slides may be enduring, but let’s not forget that the wholesale change of assessment at key stage 4 and 5 has entailed the scrapping of previous resources and creation of new materials.
- New examinations mean new mark schemes. These mark schemes are more onerous than they were before and challenge the working memory. It takes longer to assess each piece of work because of the prior reading. We need to remember that all teachers are new to the schemes, so start-up time is longer and decision-making more demanding.
- Some schools have responded to the abolition of levels by creating new and ever more detailed schemes of assessment at key stage 3. More criteria keep teachers in the task longer.
- Technological change has placed more tasks in the domain of teachers than ever before. Emails – to parents, senior leaders, other colleagues, pupils – don’t write themselves. Moreover, more teachers than ever will make phone calls to parents in the evenings to follow up pastoral or academic issues.
- Teachers taking out trips fill in risk assessments for even the most normal of activities. This activity does at least have the merit of being voluntary, as trips can be avoided.
- More and more teachers are obliged to take on co-curricular responsibilities that eat into their lunchtimes or after school on a regular basis. This not only takes up time, but it also delays application to core duties – or even a restful lunchtime.
- Because of diminished school funding and tightened purse strings, class sizes are growing; and this means more books to mark, especially for teachers in overcrowded, under-resourced schools.
- Worse still, where teacher shortages are biting, the work falls to specialist teachers to keep lesson plans and schemes tracked to keep the affected groups in contention.
- Where more staff are having to take sick leave, others may have to take on extra marking.
- More data drops of increasing complexity are required, with more demand for written follow-up where under-performance is detected.
- Some schools are increasing the number of parents’ evenings for examination classes.
- As we all moving to 100 per cent external assessment, we have more mock examinations and more formal assignments. This is only partially offset by the loss (unmourned by many) of controlled assessment.
- Too many schools are requiring individual lesson plans and lengthier schemes of work with reference to social, moral, spiritual and cultural themes, especially British Values. Many of these things could be instantly spotted by a seasoned observer or scrutineer of the scheme of work.
These are both symptoms and causes of the general malaise that has hit teaching. Undoubtedly, we need to put things into perspective and remind ourselves of the joys of teaching, which is precisely what exhausted teachers cannot do.
We need to admit that the job of the classroom teacher has simply become too big, that teachers’ workloads are not infinitely expandable, and unless we agree proper boundaries between personal and professional time, we will still struggle to staff all classrooms.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England.