The sociologist George Ritzer’s concept of "McDonaldisation" came to mind when I read the Education Policy Institute’s report "Teacher Workload and Professional Development in England’s Secondary Schools".
Most commentaries on the report highlight the long hours of work that blight the life of schoolteachers. However, from a sociological point of view, the most significant finding of the study is the manner in which the imperative McDonaldisation has enveloped the system of schooling.
McDonaldisation refers to situations where rule-making acquires a life of its own. Work becomes standardised and its output is measured and assessed according to a pre-given performance indicator.
Typically, attempts to introduce mechanisms of accountability, auditing and regulation encourage institutions to devote an ever increasing proportion of their time to filling in forms, ticking boxes and writing reports. Unfortunately, English schools are now caught up in the endless cycle of paper trails.
The EPI’s report, based on an analysis of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Teaching and Leading International Survey, suggests that out 36 national jurisdictions, teachers in England have longer hours of work than all, except for Japan and Alberta.
However, when these figures are broken down it becomes evident that teachers in England do not spend more time teaching pupils in the classroom than their colleagues internationally. As the report observes: "Although the time that teachers in England spend teaching lessons is around the average, it is time spent planning lessons, writing assessments, marking and other functions that is driving long working hours in England."
The reason why English teachers spend more time working than their peers abroad is because they are compelled to devote far too many hours to administrative duties. Most teachers I know constantly complain of the large slice of their working life which they have to devote to planning lessons, marking, writing reports and assessments. According to the EPI’s report, 77 per cent of England’s secondary school teachers disagreed with the notion that the accountability system did not add significantly to their workload.
A dangerous distraction
Ever since the 1980s the centralisation and micro-management of education has grown to envelop life in schools.
As far as policy-makers are concerned, the new systems of inspection and regulation have become the new normal and form-filling has become part of a teacher’s job description. The incorporation of the paper trail into teachers’ work is justified on the grounds that it is essential for ensuring that class practitioners and schools are held to account.
If the accountability and auditing measures served to enhance the quality of education then their incorporation into the workload of teachers might have a justification. Unfortunately, the managerial turn of English schooling does not necessarily yield positive educational results.
Externally imposed accountability measures often have the perverse effect of disorienting the work of an institution like a school. The focus of a school’s energy becomes the final inspection report. Unfortunately, this orientation towards process often distracts from the needs of young people in the classroom.
In some cases, teachers feel that what counts is what they look like on paper rather than their performance in the classroom. Often what drives many teachers to despair is the sheer pointlessness of report-writing and box-ticking, rather than the amount of time spent on it.
And the pointlessness never ceases. Indeed, one of the inexorable consequence of process is more process. With every change in government and with the introduction of every new fad into the curriculum, there is a new form to fill out.
In part, the system of accountability imposed on schools was motivated by the impulse of not trusting the teaching profession. Since teachers could not be trusted to educate children and manage schools without having to be held accountable to a central institution of auditing, policy-makers have drawn the conclusion that it is best to rely on the reports of inspectors.
The disciplining of teachers through report-writing is an integral dimension of the McDonaldisation of education. In the old days pupils were often disciplined by forcing them to stay behind and copy out lines. In the 21st century, it is the teacher who has to stay behind after the children have left to write assessments and reports.
Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His book What’s Happened to the University?: A sociological exploration of its infantilisation is published by Routledge later this month.