I’m going to
generalise here, but teachers work hard. They work hard because they want the
best for their pupils, they work hard because they are a group of people who
are intrinsically self-motivated, and they work hard because they have no
choice. Sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon with a pile of books, stumbling
home from a full day’s teaching without a proper break followed by a staff
meeting, hunched over a laptop till late at night because an assessment or set
of reports is due – all are part of the regular experience of teachers in our
state schools. It doesn’t seem to change much whatever stage of your career
you’re at – NQTs sometimes seem to have it worst of all, as they struggle to
distinguish what is important from what’s vital, and what’s urgent from what
needs to be done yesterday, but in my experience, it doesn’t get better as you go
through your career, or as you join SLT. Late night email conversations and
constant checking of the phones just seem to inexorably extend the school day.
Has it got
worse? It seems to have done so. Everybody accepts this is an important issue.
When the teacher workload advisory report was published last November, the
range of organisations contributing and in full agreement with the conclusions
was striking – from unions representing both leaders and colleagues in
classrooms, from the DfE to the National Governors Association to Ofsted. All
agreed, workload was a problem and needed addressing, and helpfully came up
with a number of suggestions to help address this.
astonishing of all in a perfect example of gamekeeper turned poacher, is the
fact that according to the draft Ofsted framework, schools will now be
inspected on how well they are helping staff to manage workload and support
their wellbeing. Any English Language teachers looking for a perfect example of
irony might want to point out that this will have sent many school leaders
scurrying off to rewrite a whole raft of school policies over the weekend.
appears to be a question of work-life balance. The obvious conclusion is that
as workload has increased, this has eaten into the amount of time available to
do other, more fulfilling things like spending time with the family,
exercising, or sleeping. The healthy balance between the time spent at work and
the time spent outside work appears to have lost.
in my view, work-life balance is an unhelpful and iniquitous term and by using
it we are preventing ourselves from making meaningful progress. The word
balance implies that as one side goes up, the other will come down. In this description,
the more work you do, the less life you have, and vice-versa. If this is the
case, then the solution, if not simple, is obvious – demand and expect less
work from teachers, and you’ll give them more life.
this line of thinking ignores one aspect of the job that if not unique, is
certainly a key element of the teacher’s lot – teachers have a to-do list that
can never be cleared. ‘That’s it, I have done all the marking, planning,
assessment, curriculum development, resource preparation and classroom display
that I could possibly do, and now I’m going to have a glass of Merlot and watch
Endeavour with nothing nagging away at the back of my mind’ said no teacher,
ever. There’s always another job, something else that we can think of that
might make a difference, and that’s the key problem with most of the solutions
suggested to deal with work-life balance issue. If life is what we get on with
when the work is done, then there’s always a reason to put it back on hold.
job I ever did was stacking shelves on the night shift at a major supermarket.
At the time, it was the most money I had ever earned, when I walked out of my
shift at 7 in the morning I wasn’t taking home a bag full of tins that I was
going to price up at home and bring in the next evening, and the work was
pretty easy and fairly relaxed. I certainly had better work-life balance than I
have ever had as a teacher or school leader. However, it was boring,
repetitive, unfulfilling and pointless. I brought no special skills to the role
that millions of others couldn’t have offered, my opinion wasn’t valued, I made
no decisions of any importance and I was completely anonymous.
If we want
and need to improve teachers’ wellbeing (and we do), then identifying tasks we
can cross off the list to tilt the balance is not the way to do it. That’s my
issue with the workload advisory report, however well intentioned. Almost all
of the recommendations are welcome, I just don’t think they’ll have much impact
on workload, or work-life balance.
restricting the number of data collection points – as a principle, that’s a
good one. It reinforces the importance of formative as opposed to summative
assessment, it gives time for the data collected to be processed, evaluated and
used to impact provision, and it reduces the incentives for teachers to see
progress as a simple climbing of an assessment ladder. It’s a principle we
moved to in the White Hills Park Trust a couple of years ago and I hope that
teachers would agree that it was a positive change. However, it isn’t the
aspect of teacher assessment that has the biggest impact on workload – reducing
from 6 data points to 3 saved a relatively minor administrative task but our teachers
continue to spend far more time on detailed feedback that promotes high-quality
targeted dialogue, way beyond the limits of any proscribed policy.
My worry is
that we could implement every recommendation, in full, and find out that at the
end of this, wellbeing remains mired in exactly the same place in which it
nature, teaching should be a job that provides wellbeing on a daily basis –
it’s got infinite variety, it’s fascinating, we’re working with subjects that
we love and are good at, and above all, we’re dealing with children and young
people, who are interesting, funny and rewarding. It is just about the most
important job that society has to offer.
doesn’t it is because something has gone wrong. Teachers have become separated
from the pleasure and fulfilment that should naturally accompany the role, and
if we’re going to change this we have to do something more fundamental than
crossing a few things off the to-do list. So, what can we do to give teachers
and teamwork across the system
that competition between schools and MATs will bring about improvement is
deeply held by the architects of the current system. I have seen the other side
of this – ‘invisible’ off-rolling, where students are encouraged to look
elsewhere before the exclusion kicks in, open evening presentations that share
the most damning part of a neighbouring school’s data. More damagingly, it
prevents any prospect of sharing support and capacity, particularly in the
secondary sector, and particularly where loyalty is towards the MAT, not the
locality. If a school is worried that the Latin department is struggling
because the Head of Department is inexperienced, then the last thing they would
consider doing in the current setup is going to the school down the road to the
school, with an outstanding department because of the lack of trust that has
built up over time. The damage that league-table culture has done to wellbeing
cannot be underestimated.
to exercise professional judgement
Many of the
issues cited as workload issues are also issues of lack of control, and I
believe that this is a potent source of frustration. Teaching is defined as a
profession, and the key characteristic of a profession is the ability to make
professional judgement. This means that tightly-controlled policy-driven
systems remove our professionalism and that will inevitably affect wellbeing.
We need systems and policies that allow room for teachers to take professional
decisions, in areas such as curriculum planning and assessment.
of teachers rise through the ranks. A much larger number, with women still over
represented, remain as classroom teachers. This should not be a choice that has
a negative impact on wellbeing – in many ways, it should be quite the opposite.
However, in a long (and getting longer) career, the sense of being stuck in a
career rut can be overwhelming – we’ve all come across the teacher who seems to
have been doing the job too long and has become embittered and cynical. We need
to embrace the contribution that class teachers make to the wider system,
ensure that there are opportunities to contribute to professional discussion and
research, to access CPD and to have a voice in school leadership decisions. We
also need performance management systems that encourage and reward teachers who
make a generous contribution to professional dialogue.
support and respect – no naming and shaming
study looked at the emotional impact on Head Teachers of failure in Ofsted inspections
– case studies of dedicated colleagues, most of whom found themselves in the
wrong place at the wrong time. I recognise that on occasions things go wrong
and in any system with accountability school leaders have to carry the can.
However, the vast majority of the Head Teachers I have known who have found
themselves in this position are hard-working people with integrity, who have
been placed in their role because of a track record of success over many years
and a variety of roles. When ‘failure’ of a school is laid at the door of one
individual and that person is hung out to dry in public, it damages the
well-being of every member of the profession who understands that there but for
the grace of God….
and embrace change
plaintive cry of ‘No More Change’ seems on the face of it to be a clear
wellbeing issue, change is difficult and stressful. However, it’s one that
doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – change is necessary to adapt to new
circumstances, and being stuck doing something that isn’t working is not
conducive to wellbeing. As school leaders, we need to have institutions that
are ready for change, that explain the reasons behind the change well and that
support people through change.
networks and social interaction
be a lonely job, particularly when things aren’t going well or the pressure’s
on. In my time in teaching, social interaction has gradually declined. This is
partly because of the pressure on time – lunchtime and after-school time is
taken up with intervention, evenings set aside for marking. There are still
many teachers with strong friendships and social media networks can provide a
source of friendships and support, but it appears to me that the social side of
teaching has declined, and where it happens it depends on a few individuals.
Days spent with people who are friends rather than just colleagues are likely
to make a positive contribution to well-being.