'Workload issues may differ between state and private schools, but its effect is equally malign'

We need to create a more realistic working environment for teachers – their mental health and general wellbeing will improve as a result, and that will trickle down to their pupils, writes one celebrated head

Bernard Trafford

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Well, the honeymoon’s over.  The start-of-term energy and optimism are wearing thin. Books are piling up, older pupils’ first major pieces of work awaiting marking.

No one goes into teaching assuming it’ll be easy. But now it’s getting darker earlier, the light’s shorter while days become longer: and half-term’s too far off yet to be counting down the hours.

Teacher workload is a problem, and teachers’ representatives are rightly more exercised about it than ever, while politicians largely ignore their concerns.

Having spent nearly all my career in private schools, I’m often asked how the independent sector tackles workload issues. My customary answer is that it's much like the maintained sector: some schools manage them well, others work their staff into the ground, and all should look at the (frequently excessive) demands made of teachers.

From outside the sector, it must be tempting to assume that private school teachers have it easier: there’s no Ofsted, performance-related pay is rare, pupils are probably more biddable and motivated, their parents more in sympathy with the aims and practices of the school, there’s likely to be a lower proportion of pupils with learning or behavioural difficulties (though the independent sector includes schools specialising in precisely those areas), and what information is available points to better pay, a generous teacher-to-pupil ratio, and significantly less weekly contact-time.

Careful, though: the independent sector’s so diverse that few of these generalised descriptions will be recognisable in any single school. Indeed, periodic campaigns by teacher unions have highlighted the outrageously poor conditions suffered by teachers in some less reputable private schools.

Indeed, a fairly recent ATL teaching union survey revealed that state school teachers are more likely to take a lunch-break than their independent counterparts, who will be giving pupils extra lessons or running the myriad extra-curricular activities that are a boast of the sector: for this and for long hours, ATL found, most receive little or no extra pay.

Nonetheless, to the majority of quality institutions in memberships of various associations under the umbrella of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), much of what I wrote above will be credible. Yet there are few independent schools where workload is not a concern.

Both sectors recognise the stresses engendered by the ongoing national thirst for raising attainment. Most independents would also suggest that the feeling of entitlement (from parents and pupils alike) stemming from the fee-paying relationship nowadays puts their teachers under pressure as great as, if different from, that exerted by Ofsted and government targets.

Some fee-paying parents believe that their child must automatically achieve top grades and a top university place: others demand monthly or even fortnightly reports on their child’s progress – and lots of homework fully and regularly marked.

Parents sometimes assume a right to contact their child’s teachers at any time they choose. Boarding-school staff, in particular, live in dread of the late-night (too frequently alcohol-fuelled, alas) email or phone-call expressing anger, accusation – even abuse. Many schools nowadays publish protocols in an attempt to protect their teachers from such exchanges.

Different pressures between the sectors, then: but arguably the same negative results for teachers.

Unsurprisingly, school leaders are the target of much criticism over workload. In their defence, I reckon most strive to absorb pressure and protect their staff, though notable exceptions occasionally make headlines.  Perversely, conscientious teachers – the overwhelming majority of the profession – can also be part of the problem, readily creating work to fill perceived gaps.

In my time I’ve battled with teachers in order to simplify and reduce their reporting load.  Then there’s homework. Even in 2017 many teachers feel they’re not doing their job if they don’t fully mark every pupil’s book at least once a week. Thus the work of Professor Dylan Wiliam and others on feedback, what works and what isn’t worth the effort, is vital.

Schools in both sectors must take these emerging themes on board, debate them and persuade teachers, often innately conservative and addicted to hard work, to discipline themselves and work “smarter, not harder” (an irritating phrase, I know). Parents will need to be persuaded, too.

The causes of excessive workload both overlap and differ between the two sectors: but its effects are equally damaging in both, demanding cross-sector work.

By creating a more realistic working environment for teachers, all schools will improve their mental health and general wellbeing – and, as a result, improve those of their pupils, too.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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