Why unions aren't doing enough to tackle workload

Lobbying the government on workload isn't enough when ministers have been turning a deaf ear, writes Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Unions aren't doing enough to tackle teacher workload, says Yvonne Williams

As the pandemic drags on, the government has got short-termism down to a fine art. Its failure to provide proper contingency plans for entirely foreseeable problems, such as the cancellation of exams for a second year running, increases teacher workload beyond endurance – even in such crisis-ridden times as these. 

Only the goodwill and ingenuity of the whole education sector has saved our schools from collapse. But a year is a long time for people to be working beyond full-stretch

It might be superficially reassuring to see the NEU passing a motion to lobby government for an effective “workload charter”

The workload is far beyond “high”: it is damagingly excessive. However, I fear that we are doomed to fail again. 

Currently, the NEU’s intentions and lobbying strategy are too abstract to bring about any real improvement. Effective union action must be based on a clear analysis of the complex factors causing the current unsustainable workload. 

Any such evaluation must lay bare not just the sum of the extra hours of futile bureaucracy shoehorned in at every turn, but also the increased intensity of the emotional and cognitive burden that the profession now carries.

Covid and schools: 'Damagingly excessive' teacher workload

The toxic recipe for this overwork has been brewing throughout the pandemic. The following ingredients will come as no surprise to teachers, and may give both union negotiators and politicians a starting point for overdue reforms:

1. The pastoral overload increases, as children’s mental health deteriorates and parents need support, especially where their economic circumstances have worsened so drastically

Schools that have dealt most effectively with all the transitions this year have managed the pastoral framework proactively – but it has come at a high cost in terms of extra hours. Many form tutors phone home and write emails well into the evening. 

2. The requirement to record pastoral incidents, their causes and resolutions, with involvement of outside agencies and reference to the latest guidance, is sending the pastoral software into overdrive.

3. Communication overload results from more email traffic about changes and adaptations as the system is in constant flux. Meetings are more frequent every time a new requirement is mooted.

4. Following the government guidance. Time was when teachers could absorb the latest guidance within a specified directed timed slot. Increasingly, they are being notified by email of a requirement to update and asked to prove that they have done it. Trawling through the plethora of lengthy documents is a prime time-consumer. 

5. The technological teaching load increased dramatically this year. Lockdowns catapulted teachers on to Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Applying new IT tools in front of a critical audience has eaten away at teachers’ resilience. 

Long hours on these platforms have caused Zoom fatigue and burnout. The casualties suffer “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” 

6. As if Zoom fatigue were not enough, we have the layer upon layer of blended learning, where classroom teaching has to synchronise with provision for pupils not in the classroom. 

7. The new phenomenon of “parent-bombing is stressful when it is aggressive and gets in the way of the lesson. Teachers have to get in touch with parents, explain and then record the incidents. No teacher will ever thank Gavin Williamson for his unhelpful direction to parents to complain to their school if they are dissatisfied with the online provision. 

8. The assessment load has increased, thanks to the panicked introduction of teacher-assessed grades. This will be all the more onerous because of the short turnaround. Teachers will be burning gallons of midnight oil just to get enough evidence to satisfy the boards and government that their judgements are secure. This is bound to break many a teacher in the run-up to TAGs, because most qualifications contain two (or more) papers. 

The unacknowledged back-breakers of terminal assessment are the over-lengthy, complex mark scheme booklets. The latest advice on Tes was for 20 minutes’ marking time per paper. Multiply that by 30 (at a conservative estimate, given the supersize groups that prevail in too many schools) and that’s 10 hours per class. Many teachers will have two exam classes. Twenty hours just on two classes is equivalent to half a week’s contact time. 

9. Data workload remains obstinately high. The NEU wants “the culture of data, data, data” to end. But how can it, when the government keeps making last-minute decisions affecting terminal assessment? 

Some school leaders might have seen the sense of limiting data-drops to twice a year, but poor government planning has thrown senior leaders back on to the necessity of keeping progress of exam classes tracked endlessly – just in case we have a hat-trick of exam cancellations. 

Teachers end up recording endlessly and being expected to justify decisions according to the data. And the problem with supplying more information is that there will be more concerned reactions in emails from over-anxious parents and pupils. 

10. The catch-up agenda is absorbing any remaining energy and will be around for some time to come, whether or not Covid learning loss actually exists

11. The proposed return of Ofsted will put teachers on constant alert.

Why the NEU must hold the government to account

Under-resourced and under extreme – often unnecessary – pressure, teachers have more than pulled their weight throughout the ongoing crisis. They have been met with shallow political platitudes and promises, which only show how out of touch the government has become with the reality of 21st-century education in a pandemic.

Now, more than ever, the NEU must use its muscle power as the largest education union in Europe to hold the government to account. Lobbying is a weak strategy to deploy with ministers who have consistently turned a deaf ear to the profession’s legitimate concerns during the pandemic. 

If we want to make the job sustainable and keep teachers in the classroom, then further action is needed to shrink workload through the following measures. 

At the very least, teachers should expect proper short-, medium- and long-term planning, as well as contingencies for what are now entirely foreseeable developments. 

As an interim measure, there should be agreement on reasonable weekly hours so that unnecessary tasks can be cut. This will provide a kind of fire break. We have seen that there is no point expecting that holidays or weekends will provide breathing space, because official guidance lands at the school door every holiday.

All unions must push for more research into the ergonomics of online working for teachers, to enable us to tackle remote-learning workload more effectively. 

Finally, we should reintroduce proper job evaluation, where all tasks are evaluated and ranked in importance, each is given a reasonable time limit and all others are scrapped. This would ensure that workload is – in the words of my former colleagues on the marking workload group – “meaningful, manageable and motivating”. 

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom, and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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