The iceberg of teacher workload
Ask somebody who isn’t a teacher, or is not related to a teacher in any way, and you may get the impression that we have it easy. A glorious vision is painted of the life of a teacher: home at 3.30 to beat the rush-hour treadmill; the endless luxury of golden summers and a succession of luxury holidays to mull over how to spend those fabled golden pensions.
This lazy and glaringly false stereotype has sparked a thousand hell-fire hot arguments between teachers and non-teachers.
Teachers, and people who know teachers well, know that the stereotype of the holiday-happy teacher is a gross misnomer. Teachers on half-term now will no doubt spend a significant portion of it working in preparation for going back to school. It appears that the politicians, ripening ready for an election, are hearing this message about workload.
The working life of a teacher finds an apt analogy in the iceberg. The hours in the classroom, visible to all, are merely the tip of the to-do list. The workload iceberg sinks deep into evenings; it can crash into weekends and it looms large in each supposed ‘holiday‘.
Marking, lesson planning and a mass of paperwork are ubiquitous for the vast majority of teachers. Each teacher careers headlong toward exhaustion until rescued by the end of each half-term. Those give us pause to breath and recuperate; plan some more; finish off marking; prepare resources and mend our health before jumping back onto the swim to do it all again.
This is all before we are subject to unnecessary bureaucracy.
Does your school demand excessive planning? How often does your school demand data inputs to measure learning that has barely had the chance to breath and grow? Is marking spiralling out of kilter relative to the needs of the students? Are weekly checks causing unnessarily work? If this is the case, then there is a good chance that your school is shrinking in fear under the unforgiving glare of OFSTED.
The unwieldy hammer of OFSTED, whether it is their direct demands aimed at a school buckling under a ‘Requiring Improvement’ judgement, or the catalogue of unintended consequences that hamper the decision making of schools everywhere, is a chief cause of the inflation of workload.
There are almost two separate school systems running in England at the moment – and I don’t mean Independent and State Schools. I mean schools and their position in relation to the inspection and accountability regime.
There are those schools (typically with better catchment areas, but not exclusively so) that are ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ in OFSTED terms. Then there are those supposedly hapless schools that are ‘Requiring Improvement’, ‘Inadequate’, or too near the precipice of either to consider little else.
Our national accountability model has become a zero-sum game.
You can have all the alleged freedoms and autonomy conferred by having Academy status, or from being a Free School, but only as long as OFSTED isn’t a hulking presence blocking your path. Is the system working? Even the most staunch defenders of OFSTED would struggle to convince people that the system is functioning well.
So when the Secretary of State asks us what is creating excessive workload and to ‘send us your solutions and strategies for tackling workload’, my answer is clear. Simply sharing strategies about how schools are tinkering at the edges of our workload issue won’t be enough to make a transformative difference.
We need to reconsider the model of school accountability and the catalogue of damaging consequences, intended or not, this zero sum game creates. we need to reform our school accountability otherwise we won’t even touch the edges of the workload issue.
Nicky Morgan, the current Education Secretary, has initiated the ‘workload challenge’ to survey why teachers are working over 50 hours per week on average and what we can do about it – see here. Not only that, her Shadow, Tristram Hunt, has written eloquently about the potential dangers of excessive workload too – see here. Nick Clegg is also clinging hard to the bandwagon of political opportunity to announce this workload survey from the Department for Education as a bona fide Liberal Democrat policy.
You may argue it all smacks a little of electioneering and lowly political opportunism, but despite this, it provides teachers with a small opportunity to steer the agenda both politically and in our schools. This is the workload survey from the DfE – see here (just ignore the irony of having to complete a document about excessive workload).
It could be a chance not only to suggest school level improvements, but also to challenge the status quo of our flawed accountability regime. Surely we have the wit to create something better? Without transformative change at this systemic level, schools will continue to be driven towards implementing school level policies that perpetuate a crippling workload iceberg.