To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that teachers, who are not in possession of a fortune, are in want of a sharp reduction in workload. The evidence, not least this week's TES survey, is indisputable. Either the problem is tackled comprehensively or we face a haemorrhaging of staff and recruitment difficulties that will make the crisis of the past few years pale into insignificance.
The workload derives from an unprecedented and massive escalation in teachers' accountability to headteachers, governors, parents and government. Since it is unlikely that this trend can be reversed, the aim must be to make it manageable so that teachers are not driven screaming up the walls. There is no other effective way of achieving this manageability other than by changing the contract under which teachers work.
An integral part of the increased accountability of teachers is the requirement to assess, monitor and record the progress of their pupils to a degree unknown in previous generations. Teachers clearly need time, during the school day, to discharge that duty. It cannot be done in teaching time so they must be given time away from their pupils. The preparation involved now in teaching lessons is much more detailed than would have been the case in the past. That, also, must be accommodated in the allocation of working time available to teachers. However, unless that entitlement is written specifically into a teacher's contract, thousands of them will not receive it since many school managements, pleading the virtues of flexibility, will decide that some other aspect of the school's work should receive priority.
That is why the cogently-argued joint submission of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, National Union of Teachers, Professional Association of Teachers and Universities and Colleges Admissions Committee to the School Teachers Review Body, which is now considering the issue of teacher workload, laid such emphasis on what is described as the "building block approach". In effect, this is the principle which informed the McCrone Report in Scotland, and has now been incorporated into Scottish teachers' conditions of service.
It results in a contractual maximum class-contact time for teachers with time for marking and preparation directly proportional to the time allocated to class-contact commitment. Combining this with an overall limit to the working hours of teachers would clearly ensure that the primary responsibility of teaching, preparation and assessment is discharged but contained within a manageable time frame.
While the building block approach would help to mitigate the heaviest workload pressures on teachers, there are activities which could be devolved to support staff. The recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey and the McCrone report identified such activities.
There will need to be a sharp expansion in support staff numbers and clear occupational standards, a qualifications framework and career structure, including a bridge to Qualified Teacher Status. Education Secretary Estelle Morris touched upon this issue of support staff in schools in her important speech to the Social Market Foundation last November when, she pointed to the "remodelling of the teaching profession" as a possible solution.
Subsequently, she established a working group, consisting of Department for Education and Skills officials, local authority representatives, the Office for Standards in Education, the General Teaching Council, the Teacher Training Agency and the teacher organisations, to take forward work on this crucial question. There is clearly great merit in exploring the idea because if such remodelling was properly implemented, it could help enormously in lessening the workload burden on teachers and thus tackle the chief cause of teacher low morale. But it would be foolish to pretend that there are no potential problems.
They can be summarised in the concern of teachers that non-teachers will supplant this pedagogic function in some areas - another Mum's Army set to march. It is important that such fears are allayed, which they should if the working group does its job.
I believe that if the measures outlined above are implemented, albeit on a phased basis, there is a real possibility that this endemic problem of teacher workload can be successfully tackled. The consequent boost to teacher morale would surely be a universal truth worth acknowledging.
Eamonn O'Kane is the general secretary designate of the NASUWT