Workload is improving, but there is more to do...

Written by: Jack Worth & Matt Walker | Published:
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The Department for Education’s latest Teacher Workload Survey results show that teacher workload is improving, but there is still a way to go. Jack Worth and Matt Walker investigate the latest research findings

Teacher workload remains one of the major issues facing the profession. The work/life balance of school staff affects the satisfaction and wellbeing of practitioners and their likelihood of staying in the profession long-term.

At a time when more teachers are needed to serve growing numbers of pupils and not enough new teachers are being trained, retention is of great importance to the quality of education.

As workload is a key factor affecting teacher retention, reducing teacher workload has become a key policy priority for the Department for Education (DfE).

The workload associated with marking, tracking and monitoring pupil progress coupled with accountability measures can seriously impact on stress and job satisfaction. Long working hours and constant changes to working practices, as outlined in our previous Engaging teachers report (Lynch et al, 2016), which presented an analysis of teacher retention, have led to challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers.

In October, the DfE published the findings from the latest Teacher Workload Survey (DfE, 2019), which was conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in March this year. It is the most recent evidence on teacher workload and acts as a national barometer for the working conditions of teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders.

A key finding from the report is that teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders all report working fewer total hours per week, as compared to the 2016 survey.

Teachers’ working hours

So, what does this latest study show about teachers’ working hours? The survey found that, on average, primary teachers and middle leaders report working 50 hours per week in 2019, which was a decrease of 5.5 hours since 2016.

During weekends, evenings and other out-of-school hours, that figure was 12.5 hours, down by five hours since 2016. The proportion of time spent working out-of-school hours was down by seven percentage points in three years to 25 per cent.

However, the study found that teachers working in primary academies work almost two hours longer a week than their colleagues in maintained primary schools.

The survey, based on full-time and part-time workers combined, also found that senior leaders report working fewer hours per week than in the previous survey. Total recorded working hours in the reference week for primary senior leaders in the 2019 survey was 54.4 hours per week, down 5.4 hours from the 59.8 hours reported in 2016.

Why have teachers’ working hours dropped?

The Teacher Workload Survey adds to our understanding of teacher workload because it goes beyond estimating the total number of hours that teachers work. It also looks at how teachers spend their time on different activities, how they feel about the amount of time they spend on these various activities, and how they perceive their workload and their ability to manage it effectively.

The main factor driving the reduced total working hours in 2019 was that primary teachers and middle leaders report spending less time on non-teaching activities, such as planning and preparation, marking, administration and, to a lesser extent, data management, than in previous years.

Compared to 2016, primary teachers and middle leaders report spending 1.3 hours less a week on “individual planning/preparation of lessons”, 2.2 hours less on “marking/correcting of pupils’ work”, and 1.8 fewer hours “undertaking pupil supervision”. Smaller reductions were also reported in the “recording, inputting, monitoring and analysis of pupil data” – down 0.5 hours in the primary phase.

It is significant that these reductions are concentrated in the areas of focus for DfE’s independent workload review groups on marking, planning and resources, and data management (DfE, 2016) as well as the Workload Advisory Group’s recent report on data management (DfE, 2018). The findings therefore suggest that the work of the review groups may have contributed to progress in reducing teacher workload.

However, despite reporting spending less time on non-teaching activities, large proportions of teachers and middle leaders still reported that they feel they spend too much time on these activities. More than half of primary teachers and middle leaders report spending too much time on planning and preparing lessons, administration, marking and data management.

However, the proportions that reported spending too much time on these activities were lower than in the 2016 survey, suggesting that time spent on these activities is moving in a positive direction.

Primary senior leaders’ workload

Depending on how it is achieved, reduced teacher workload could impact negatively on senior leaders’ workload. However, as mentioned earlier, the survey found that primary senior leaders have also seen their working hours fall in the 2019 survey, compared to 2016.

Primary senior leaders report spending the most time on “teaching and related tasks” (16 hours a week) and “leadership and management within the school” (11.5 hours). Compared to 2016, primary senior leaders report working fewer hours on “leadership and management within the school” (6.4 fewer hours) and “administration within the school” (2.1 fewer hours).

However, senior leaders report working more hours on “performance management of staff” (1.5 more hours) and “recruitment” (0.6 more hours).

Perceptions of workload

Teachers’ perceptions of workload involve more than just working hours. The findings show that teachers who report working longer hours are generally more likely to report that workload is a problem in their school. However, they also show that primary teachers and middle leaders – who generally report working longer hours than their secondary counterparts – are less likely to perceive teacher workload to be a “very serious problem” in their school.

How teachers view the severity of their workload is more complex than just their working hours: manageability of workload is a defining factor in their perceptions. Studies by the NFER (Worth et al, 2018) and Education Datalab (Sims, 2017) show that when it comes to determining teachers’ job satisfaction and likelihood of remaining in the profession, the issue of unmanageable workload is more important than the hours worked.

Greater efforts are needed to reduce workload

Around seven out of 10 primary respondents – compared with nine out of 10 secondary practitioners – report that workload was a “fairly” or “very” serious problem in their school.

Teachers’, middle leaders’ and senior leaders’ perceptions of their workload have improved relative to 2016, but nearly three-quarters still report not achieving a good work/life balance and 79 per cent report not having an acceptable workload.

The Teacher Workload Survey 2019 findings therefore give some grounds for cautious optimism about the direction that teacher workload is going. But they also highlight that there is more work to do to reduce working hours and to improve teachers’ day-to-day experiences in the workplace.

The survey is just one of a range of data sources that measure working hours in England. The findings highlight the need to continue monitoring trends in teachers’ working hours. The DfE is committed to collecting robust evidence on teacher workload every two years, and the next survey in 2021 will be an important part of this continued monitoring. the NFER also intends to provide further monitoring and insights through our analysis of Labour Force Survey data in our Teacher Labour Market annual report, the next instalment of which we will publish early next year. 

  • Jack Worth is school workforce lead and Matt Walker is a research manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Follow @TheNFER

Further information & research

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the Knowledge Bank section of the Headteacher Update website:

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