Workload. Are you working in the dark?

Written by: Andy Mellor | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If you are reading this article at school and it is dark outside – go home...

It is about this time of year when you really start to notice that you’ve been turning up to work and leaving for home in the dark. The long evenings of the summer are over and the spring feels a lifetime away.

Recent research by the Education Support Partnership shows that around a third of all teachers work more than 50 hours a week. For leaders it’s around 60 hours per week. With less than a third of the academic year complete, we’re already knackered.

Now, everyone knows that on a good day, teaching is one of the most rewarding careers imaginable. The trouble is, there just aren’t enough good days. For many teachers and school leaders, the enormous privilege of helping young people learn and grow can be outweighed by the pressure and workload of the profession they’ve chosen.

According to the above research, 80 per cent of school leaders describe themselves as stressed. Excessive workload and the pace of change in education were by far the biggest drivers of stress. However, although the picture is dire, we should not despair.

The solutions are clear: pay needs to rise and workload needs to drop. Frustratingly, very little progress is being made on either.

On pay, the government has made a serious misjudgement by ignoring the recommendations of its independent panel, the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). It is astonishingly misguided to assume that another real-terms pay cut for most school staff, including leaders, will not have an impact on recruitment and retention.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is currently surveying its members on this issue to inform our submission to the next STRB remit. Last year, you may remember that our Leaky Pipeline report threw new light on the recruitment and retention problem. This report had a fundamental impact on Department for Education (DfE) thinking. We have convinced them that workload is a problem. Ministers are no longer denying that there’s a recruitment crisis.

Among our killer stats were three which really brought home the problems with recruitment across all roles, from teachers to senior leaders.

First, a very high proportion (81 per cent) of teaching vacancies were difficult to fill, 63 per cent were recruited with a struggle, and respondents failed to recruit for 18 per cent of roles.

Second, 66 per cent of school leaders said they were aware of some of their staff having left the teaching profession for reasons other than retirement. The top two reasons cited were workload (84 per cent) and achieving a better work/life balance (83 per cent).

A third finding from our research was very telling. When asked, if you failed to recruit to a teaching post, what did you do to fill the gap?, 44 per cent of school leaders said that they or another member of the leadership team covered the class or the hours that needed to be made up. Back to the late nights and early mornings, again.

A significant driver of workload is accountability. Ofsted’s new inspection framework for September 2019 represents a golden opportunity to cut workload.

However, the scale of the changes being proposed (see pages 1 and 2) cannot possibly be implemented in the time available. The only outcome we can see is that stress and workload will continue to rise as schools rush to prepare themselves.

At the beginning of the autumn term, the NAHT published the Improving School Accountability report. We have made nine sensible recommendations for change, and although these proposals have widespread support, Ofsted is choosing to ignore much of the profession and press ahead, which will mean that the new framework could do more harm than good.

To mitigate this risk, we have called on Ofsted to press pause on its plans for a short time. I will be really interested to see if the secretary of state is bold enough to step in, if required.

Let’s be clear, nobody in education is afraid of hard work and accountability. All we ask is that both are fair, and that our teams are fairly paid for the work that they do.

All the while this plea goes unanswered, the recruitment pipeline will continue to leak at both ends, with insufficient numbers of NQTs coming into the system and too many experienced teachers leaving prematurely.

According to the latest DfE data, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) nursery and primary teachers fell from just over 222,400 in 2016 to 221,100 in 2017. The total number of FTE entrants to teaching has decreased since 2015 from 45,500 to 42,400 in 2017. This is a tide that we must stem. Without enough numbers of teachers, we will never be able to accomplish all that we want for the young people in our care. Without enough numbers of teachers, those of us who remain will be starting early and leaving late to make up the gap. Teaching is a full-time job, but it should not be a 24-hour enterprise. So, if you are reading this article at school, and it is dark outside, go home.

  • Andy Mellor took over as the president of the National Association of Head Teachers at the union’s annual conference in Liverpool in May. He is headteacher of St Nicholas CE Primary School in Blackpool.

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