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Did you know?

* The average working week across all jobs in the UK is 40 hours. For managers and professionals it's 45. In term-time, classroom teachers work about 51 hours a week in secondary schools, and 53 in primaries, rising to almost 60 hours for heads and deputies

* A teachers' workload survey found that over the course of 2000, including work done in the holidays, teachers put in around 2,200 hours - not far above the national average

* A teacher working these 2,200 hours and earning pound;20,000 is effectively paid pound;9 an hour

* Analysis of teachers' blood samples has shown that even a six-week break in the summer is not enough to allow full recovery from the stresses of term-time

Workload is big news. In recent months, it's made more headlines than any other item on the educational agenda, with teaching unions claiming excessive workload as the number one reason for teachers quitting the profession, and the major obstacle to recruitment. The Teacher Support Network says workload is the prime cause of stress, ill-health and unhappiness. In short, it's a professional and a personal issue. But are teachers right to complain? Do they really get a worse deal than anyone else? And what - if anything - can be done to make life easier?

What is "workload"?

It means different things to different people. To some, "workload" is simply the number of hours they put into their job every week. But most agree it's more complicated than that. "Workload is almost impossible to define," says Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology. "It's a combination of many factors - volume of work, intensity of work, and the intrusiveness of work into your private life. It's not just about hours - it's how those hours affect you."

Do teachers really work harder than people in other professions?

They certainly work long hours. In the UK, the average working week across all jobs is 40 hours. For managers and professionals it's 45. Primary teachers work about 53 hours a week during term-time, secondary staff about 51, although this rises to almost 60 hours for heads and deputies in both sectors. So, yes, teachers do work harder than most. And these are averages - plenty of teachers work even harder.

Differences in working routines make comparisons with other public-sector employees difficult. Nurses and police constables, for example, have a standard working week of between 37 and 40 hours. Most will work longer than this, but will be paid overtime. Junior doctors have a notoriously rough deal, with about one in three working more than the recommended maximum of 56 hours a week. Add the time they are on call and it can come to around 72 hours. But they only work like this for a short period at the start of their careers - teachers face long hours throughout their working lives.

Ah, but what about. . .

Yes, the holidays go some way towards redressing the balance. The teachers'

workload survey conducted over 2000 by PricewaterhouseCoopers and released late last year found that over the year, including work carried out in the holidays, teachers put in around 2,200 hours - not far above the national average.

So what's the problem?

As Professor Cooper suggests, there's more to workload than long hours. Volume of work? Intensity of work? Intrusiveness of work? Most teachers would answer "yes" on all three counts. Tasks such as planning and record-keeping may bear comparison with other administrative jobs, but the time spent in front of a class does not. The "performance" element of the job is emotionally demanding - so, too, is dealing with disruptive pupils. And the peaks and troughs of the school calendar are not ideal. Analysis of teachers' blood samples has shown that even a six-week break in the summer is not enough to allow full recovery from the stresses of term-time. Workload also has to be considered in relation to salary. A teacher earning pound;20,000 and working 2,200 hours a year is effectively paid pound;9 an hour. Try making that offer when you want your conveyancing done or your plumbing fixed.

Has workload increased in recent years ?

Yes. Teachers work about three-and-a-half hours a week more than they did eight years ago. The reason is clear - a string of government initiatives has increased the administrative burden. One teacher who joined a TES website chatroom discussion on workload said he'd received 27 requests for information in one week from various government agencies - all of them taking up time to read, collect data and respond to. According to the PwC report, primary teachers point the finger at literacy and numeracy strategies, while secondary staff say AS-levels and threshold applications are partly to blame. But primary and secondary teachers agree on the real villain of the piece: Ofsted. Almost four out of 10 teachers cited "inspection-related activity" as the cause of increased workload. Three-and-a-half extra hours a week may not sound like much - but again, says Professor Cooper, we should look beyond the bare statistics. He believes that while the working week has expanded only slightly, resentment over the long hours has risen dramatically. "Ten years ago teachers still worked very hard. But they felt in control - now they feel under pressure."

Rather than blaming individual initiatives, he points to a general shift in culture. "The Government is more demanding of teachers, parents are more demanding of teachers, pupils are more demanding of teachers. They've got it from all sides."

Is it worse for primary or secondary teachers?

In terms of hours worked, there's not much in it - but the nature of the workload differs considerably. Research suggests primary staff spend 50 per cent more time on planning than secondary teachers, but that the situation is reversed when it comes to marking. Primary teachers receive less non-contact time - typically less than one hour a week or none at all - as opposed to four for secondary staff. That means they spend more time in front of the class which, in theory, is more demanding. But they are also more likely to receive help from support staff. And secondary staff point out that supposed "non-contact time" often evaporates if they have to cover absences.

What would good old Mr Chips have made of all this?

Dr Philip Gardner, a Cambridge University senior lecturer on the history of education, recently initiated a discussion group made up of former teachers, now in their eighties and nineties, and present-day newly qualified teachers. "The older teachers felt very sorry for the younger ones," he says. "The usual comment was, 'How can you put up with all that meddling?'"

Dr Gardner claims that while teachers between the wars worked hard during the school day - often having to contend with classes of more than 50 pupils - they had no problem with "workload" as today's teachers know it. "They didn't take work home with them. And most pupils left school without sitting external exams, so there was no pressure there. There was no national curriculum and no government interference. As for parents, some schools had signs at the gate saying 'no parents beyond this point'. They certainly had no parent-teacher evenings to worry about."

How times change. . .

Well, yes and no. One teacher diarist from the early 1900s complains about the intensity of the working day, saying: "The last half-hour of the afternoon always sees me dead tired." And the following extract is taken from The Schoolmaster magazine's first edition of the 20th century. "How ill-rewarded, lowly-esteemed, anxious, toilsome and subject to petty tyrannies is the career of the teacher. If ever there be a dearth of teachers, the nation. . . will have itself to blame." Prophetic stuff.

What can be done to cut workload ?

The School Teachers' Review Body has listed more than 20 "routine chores" that teachers should not be doing, such as photocopying and putting up displays of work. Schools are being urged to review their "staff balance" - in other words, to consider employing more classroom assistants, IT specialists and support staff. While removing basic administrative duties from teachers will be a step in the right direction, and might bring the working week under 50 hours, other measures will still be needed.

It's planning, teaching and marking that take up the time, so the real solution could be to employ more teachers. But the numbers needed to make an impact would be vast. For example, to create just 10 minutes a week free time for existing secondary staff, another 3,000 teachers would be needed. It is likely that computer power, rather than manpower, holds the key to cutting workload. We're not talking about robot teachers - not yet anyway - just about making proper use of existing knowledge and equipping teachers. Improved software for testing, record-keeping and report-writing; internet-based schemes of work available at the click of a button; ICT suites large enough to accommodate three or four classes under just one teacher's supervision; laptops for every teacher.

But it's not quite that simple. There is some evidence that when one area of the workload is cut, other responsibilities move in to fill the gap. A trial at Rose Hill primary school in Oxford found that adopted lesson plans and web-based resources cut individual planning time by between three and eight hours a week. Yet the overall hours staff put in remained constant as they took the opportunity to catch up on other work.

Too conscientious?

Yes, says Professor Bart McGettrick of Glasgow University's faculty of education. He suggests teachers could be more independent and free-spirited. "Slavish adherence to government dictates is counter-productive. You can spend 16 hours planning a scheme of work, trying to satisfy external criteria. But it won't be as good as spending four hours on it and trying to satisfy your professional instinct." He argues that workload is a state of mind. "If you feel you're working to your own agenda, you won't mind putting in the hours."

Spreading the load

In the short term, spreading the existing workload more evenly may be easier to achieve than a reduction in hours. Moving to a five or six-term year might help, by at least giving teachers more regular recovery time. And there are suggestions that some term-time activities could be shifted into "working holidays". Professional development, for example, could take place outside term-time, with teachers paid the daily supply rate to attend. Coursework marking could also be confined to the holidays, but with teachers paid a daily rate for the work. Another suggestion is to expand the teaching day into a regular nine-to-five format, giving teachers more non-contact time between lessons. The Government has also started a year-long pilot, Pathfinder, starting this September, which will test ways of reducing workload - a decision that followed the PwC report. The 32 primary, secondary and special schools taking part will receive support including a laptop for every teacher, extra administrative and classroom staff and increased non-contact time for teachers. Computers will be networked across these schools to allow them to share lesson plans.

The contactnon-contact conundrum

There's a paradox here. Teachers like being in the classroom - that's where their job satisfaction lies. For example, while many primary staff are actively teaching for more than 22 hours a week, only 1.3 per cent consider this "excessive". Among secondary staff, classroom teaching comes well down the list of perceived burdens. But the PwC report concludes that "contact time is the driver of the workload". In other words, the best way to cut planning, marking and record-keeping is to cut down on the teaching. The research found that every hour's reduction in contact time brought a further hour's reduction in administration. Given that accountability is here to stay, the message seems clear - if you want less paperwork, you will have to accept less time doing the part of your job you love.

Lies, damned lies and statistics

PwC ran into a predictable obstacle when it was conducting its workload survey - many teachers were too busy to take part. The study had only a 35 per cent take-up rate, and it took much longer than expected to recruit the required 100 schools. It was merely the latest in a long line of reports about teachers and their working lives. These surveys offer only a snapshot of a cross-section of the profession, but here's a selection of findings.

* "Among teachers leaving the profession before retirement age, 58 per cent claim workload is driving them out. Only 25 per cent blame poor pay."

(Liverpool UniversityNUT, 2001)

* "Becoming head of department adds only around an hour to your average working week." (PwC, 2001)

* "Headteachers underestimate, by around 40 per cent, the amount of work their teaching staff do in the holidays." (PwC)

* "Only one in 10 full-time teachers works fewer than 45 hours a week."

(Mori, 2001)

* "A third of teachers leave for work before 7.30am, a quarter return home after 6pm, and almost a third work for at least two hours after they get home." (FDS International, 2002)

Scotland, McCrone and the 35-hour week

Scotland introduced a 35-hour week for teachers in August 2001as part of an agreement that also limited the number of contact teaching hours. These will be phased down to 22.5 hours by 2006; until then, guaranteed time for planning and marking, will be equivalent to at least a third of each teacher's class contact time. Significantly, the deal is the same for primary and secondary teachers. This means it will have its biggest impact in primary schools, where non-contact time has usually been limited. The agreement was welcomed by the unions and by four out of five teachers. But there have been teething problems: local authorities claim they need more cash to implement the agreement fully, while staff report that in reality they are still working the same hours as before. As one teacher puts it:

"It's no good cutting the hours without cutting the work that has to be fitted into those hours."

Meanwhile, Professor Gavin McCrone of Edinburgh University points out that his report never actually recommended a35-hour week. "It's not the key issue," he says. "Of course people work more hours than that - it's a matter of professional pride." Despite this, unions south of the border still want a McCrone-style deal for teachers in England. Estelle Morris has proffered her opinion on the concept of a 35-hour week. It is, she says, "potty" - although she has welcomed aspects of a School Teachers' Review Body report earlier this month which recommended that teachers' workloads be cut to 45 hours a week in four years - with an interim target of 48 in two years. Official consultation on the report ends on July 3.

Hard work never hurt anyone

Not true. As Professor Cooper succinctly puts it: "Long hours equals short life." His research indicates that consistently working more than 50 hours a week has a detrimental effect on health. Then there's the small matter of personal happiness. "The UK has the longest working hours in western Europe," says Professor Cooper. "It also has the highest divorce rate. Those two facts are not unconnected."

On top of that comes the question of professional performance. "There's less evidence on this, but let's face it - if your health is suffering and your home life is going down the drain, well, you probably aren't going to be functioning that well at work, are you?"

Sound familiar?

European teachers work up to seven hours a week less than their UK counterparts, but they still face the same problems. Earlier this year, about half the teachers in French primary and secondary schools went on strike. The union demands? More time for planning, more time for professional development, and more time for departmental meetings.

Main story: Steven Hastings

Illustrations: Brett Ryder

Additional research: Tracey Thomas

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