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Teacher workload – the Government must address the issues

Schools are doing their bit to tackle the burden but it doesn’t help that they are being asked to do more with less...

  • Teacher workload – the Government must address the issues

First, the good news. The picture on teacher workload appears to be improving. The 2019 teacher workload survey results were published by the DfE in October, which revealed teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders are working fewer hours in total in 2019 than they did in the last survey in 2016 – 50.0 hours per week on average, down 5.5 hours.

Second, the bad news. Teacher workload remains a problem. While the findings do suggest teacher workload is reducing, 52% of primary respondents said their workload is a fairly serious problem and 21% said it is a very serious problem.

Reducing the work burden has been a focus for some time, and rightly so. As the profession struggles with recruitment, and many talented colleagues are handing in their notice for other roles outside of education, it is vital that this issue is addressed.

Excessive levels of teacher workload, alongside the crushing weight of accountability measures, are two of the reasons why the profession is haemorrhaging experienced teachers and failing to recruit enough new ones.

We know that many university graduates are now bypassing teaching as the lure of more money and the attraction of a better work-life balance is available in other career paths. This situation hampers school improvement and impacts on pupil outcomes.

And the problems it causes are particularly pernicious for schools that are struggling. The national shortage of teachers means that candidates can easily pick and choose where they apply.

This results in a situation where they may gravitate towards schools rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, making it even more difficult for schools in challenging circumstances to improve standards.

The tasks which drive workload are clear from the findings of the survey. Most primary teachers and middle leaders reported spending too much time on general administrative work (65%), individual planning/preparation of lessons (56%), and on marking/correcting pupils work (53%).

And a significant proportion of senior leaders reported spending too much time on administration within the school (42%); data analysis (32%); administration and management with external bodies (29%); and teaching and related tasks (29%).

The bigger question is what lies behind these pressures, and I would suggest the answer to that is largely a systemic problem. Schools have to juggle a dizzying array of demands, and they have to do so with reduced levels of funding. In short, they are required to do more with less.

It is clear from the survey that schools are putting a great deal of focus on how to reduce workload pressures. Primary senior leaders in nearly all schools reported protecting blocks of non-teaching time to plan lessons and/or mark work (98%).

Working collaboratively with other staff to plan schemes of work and/or share resources (86%) was another popular strategy, as was using existing schemes of work and associated lesson plans that can be adapted by teaching staff (84%) and computer software that effectively helps with administrative tasks (80%).

However, the systemic issues behind excessive workload can only be tackled by the government. 

There is nothing new in this issue. A recent study by University College London found that teachers in England have worked long hours for many years. It also found that teachers in England worked on average eight hours more a week compared to teachers in comparable industrialised OECD countries.

Lead author professor John Jerrim said: “Successive secretaries of state for education have made big commitments to teachers about their working hours – how they are determined to reduce the burden of unnecessary tasks and how they will monitor hours robustly. Our data show just how difficult it is to reduce teacher workload and working hours.”

He added: “Overall, bolder plans are needed by the government to show they are serious about reducing working hours for teachers and bringing them into line with other countries.”

What this suggests to us is that for every initiative to reduce workload, there is a force in the other direction, such as more responsibilities on schools, curriculum changes and less money.

If we are ever to break out of this cycle and significantly improve the work-life balance of teachers, the government will surely have to accept that it must match expectations with resources.

Tiffnie Harris is primary specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders. Find out more at ascl.org.uk and on Twitter at @ASCL_UK.

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