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  • Chris Jeffery

On Teacher Workload

I am very conscious that writing about teacher workload is potentially dangerous for me to do as a Head, not least because I haven’t worked in the classroom for any significant proportion of my time for more than half of my career now.

As has been pointed out to me a number of times (with varying degrees of kindness) I don’t know first-hand what being a classroom teacher is actually like any more. Nonetheless, I do know it has changed significantly since I did. A second reasons I am wary about addressing this issue is that I have no real solutions to the problems I am about to describe. I really don’t know simple or affordable ways to make things substantially better for my colleagues. In a sense, all I can offer are thoughts that might explain where things have got to, and a plea for understanding.

The teachers’ strikes disrupting the UK maintained sector have their roots as much in issues of workload (and the staff retention issues that are both product and factor of this) as they do in matters of remuneration. There seems to be a general consensus at the end of every term in the nation’s staff rooms that ‘we’ve never known a term like it’! I’ve certainly heard that with compelling frequency in the schools I have known over the past 12 years

To my shame, for several of those years I was somewhat sceptical of that recurring phrase.

And then, one day, I had a bit of a revelation…

It came as I began to compare what was expected of me as a young teacher starting out in 1988, with what is expected of teachers today.

I entered teaching at a time in which staff still smoked in the staff room, had time to read the newspaper at break and some even helped themselves to a lunchtime drink from the bar in the corner of the staff room. Life was remarkably simple, on reflection.

In preparation for my first role I was given A Level and GCSE specifications (mark schemes, if they existed, were not published then); a rough list of topics from which I might choose what to teach to Years 7-9 (or First to Third form); a selection of text books and a glorious ACME Thunderer whistle (for my Under 14B rugby responsibility). In addition, I was shown where the Banda machine and stationery supplies were kept and given a key to get me into the school whenever I wanted to be there. And that was pretty much it!

A teacher’s expertise was almost exclusively restricted to our knowledge of our subject, the ways in which we’d been taught to teach and perhaps a passable familiarity of the laws of various sports. Pastoral knowledge and skills were expected to go hand-in-hand semi-magically with the motivation to be a teacher.

Accountability? Was it even a concept that most people understood? Was it, indeed, a word that was ever used? After all, we were ‘professionals’!

Fast forward to today and what is different?

Put simply, the list of areas in which each teacher is now required to have developed significant expertise is vast. Teachers in 2023 need to have detailed knowledge of things that weren’t a part of my professional landscape until many years into my career: special educational needs; safeguarding, radicalisation and child abuse; neuroscience for learning and wellbeing; adolescent mental health; student performance data; ICT and its use in learning; exam mark schemes and associated technique; evidence-based best teaching/learning practices; a huge raft of school policies etc. All teachers, all of the time, in all schools. A.I. is already next on the list.

It’s pretty unarguable that almost all of the above have had a positive impact on the learning, achievement, safety and development of the young people we work with, and thus there’s no going back; nor should there be.

Add in the appearance of accountability measures in the form of exam league tables; regular onerous and high-stakes external inspection; data analysis; school performance management structures; and the informal accountability direct to parents that is permitted -indeed encouraged- by email (and too often toxified by Facebook/WhatsApp)…and you can see how the life of a teacher has changed immeasurably over the past 35 years. And why so many teachers worry about a workload that leads to the levels of pressure, tiredness and, too often, disillusionment that we hear more and more about.

[Of course it must be acknowledged in passing that such changes to the required expertise and expected accountability of teachers is not unique. Most if not all other professions will see clear echoes in what I have described above.]

But augment all this with the widely -indeed, internationally- reported increase in challenges around deteriorating student behaviour and increased prevalence of anxiety/mental health issues that appear to have been the universal experience of all types of schools since Covid…and it’s no wonder that many teachers are really struggling to manage their professional lives in a way that appears to offer a sustainable future in schools.

The real problem for me is that I can’t really see any answers to it without a radical societal and non-party-political rethink of what we expect of the profession. Its almost impossible to see ways in which any of the things explored above can be removed from the shoulders of teachers’ without damaging the students they care for. And there is not the money either in maintained schools or the huge majority of private schools to give teachers more time out of the classroom or to employ additional colleagues who might take some of the burden off them.

Unsatisfactorily but unavoidably, such a workload is now simply part of the landscape that the modern teacher has to navigate. However, I’m sure that the vast majority of those who either comment on education from the outside or who legislate and create policy for it completely fail to understand that, and therefore are unable to acknowledge it. As for the ‘ah, but the holidays?’ brigade: I would challenge them to cope with the breadth of responsibilities of a teacher, let alone the energy and emotional intensity involved in managing groups of lively and needy young people on a daily basis, without the need for significant periods of R&R.

They could at least start by acknowledging this massive increase in expectations as it has evolved over the professional lifetime of my generation of teachers. And being grateful that so many genuinely good, hugely talented and deeply committed people willingly turn up every day to cope with it!

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