Workload: 'Bureaucracy is ruining teachers' lives'

Five years of initiatives to cut workload have come to nothing – and Ofsted is largely to blame, says Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted

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The longest-ever study into teacher workload – conducted between 1992 and 2017 – has found that five years of government initiatives to reduce teacher workload have come to nothing.

Teachers in England, in 2018, during term time, worked on average 47 hours a week. That is eight hours more than teachers in comparable Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. A quarter of teachers in England work more than 60 hours a week, far in excess of their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

And yet, teaching timetables for English teachers, with 21 hours’ contact time per week, are about average internationally. The work that piles on the hours, late into the evening and over the weekend, is the planning, preparation, marking and data collection, which teachers feel forced to do to prove that they have covered every base. 

'Exhausting' teacher workload

Overwhelmingly, this is not productive work. It is excessive, exhausting, deprofessionalising and dehumanising bureaucracy, which ruins teachers’ energy and enthusiasm. Faced with unrelenting pressure and drudgery, teachers vote with their feet. They leave the classroom in droves – nearly half of them quitting the classroom within 10 years of qualifying, and a third within five years.

Without doubt, the biggest problem facing the English education system is the shortage of teachers. It has many consequences, and all of them are negative. 

Pupils are increasingly being taught by teachers who are not qualified in the subject they are teaching. One in five maths and English lessons is now taught by non-specialist teachers. 

This can only have negative effects on pupils’ learning and progress. And it is children in the poorest areas, in the most challenging schools, who are most likely to be taught by non-specialist teachers, compounding the disadvantage they already face in so many other areas of their lives.

The effect on those teachers who remain in the profession is huge. Not only do they have to plan and prepare for the classes they teach, but they also have to spend even more hours supporting their colleagues who – while qualified and working their hardest – simply do not have the subject knowledge they need. 

Ofsted: toxic accountability

The tragedy is that the government knows very well what is the main cause of excessive teacher workload. The 44,000 teachers who, in 2014, responded to Nicky Morgan’s workload survey reported that in-school and out-of-school accountability pressures resulted in excessive planning, preparation and assessment tasks.

Faced with this fact, any sensible government would have tackled the root cause of the problem: the toxic accountability regime of Ofsted, an agency at the middle of a spider’s web of inspection, tests and league tables.

Since its inception in 1992, Ofsted has been an agency which, while purporting to raise school standards, has signally failed to do so. Immeasurably more powerful than any government education minister and their policies, Ofsted polices the teaching profession. 

Ofsted’s practice of inspection drives teacher workload because it is so inconsistent and uneven. Previous Ofsted practice – for example, its obsession with pupil-progress data – has had serious consequences. In the case of data, this was teachers spending untold hours filling in progress charts – hours that could have been spent thinking deeply and creatively about their teaching and their pupils’ learning.

Given inadequate time and resources to inspect schools properly, Ofsted relies upon “evidence”, which can only be unreliable – a problem that continues with its new inspection framework, launched this month. Ofsted’s own research shows that its inspectors’ ability to judge reliably the quality of teaching through work scrutiny and lesson observations is unacceptably low.

It is time that politicians acted upon the evidence. Teachers deserve to be trusted as expert professionals. Teachers deserve to be held to account for their work by professionals whose judgement they respect.

Any government that grasps this nettle will be rewarded by greatly improved rates of teacher retention. And that, more than anything else, will raise standards of education in our schools.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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