Sunday, 12 November 2017

Teacher workload – should we negotiate more in order to achieve less?

A few years ago I was talking with a friend who was considering teaching. He asked me about workload, what he might expect. I told him I felt that it was probably a job that can’t be done effectively in fewer than 50-60 hours a week, that the holidays are some compensation, but that work is still required during those periods to remain afloat. I acknowledged to him that I had invested much more than that myself in the first few years of my career (when I was young and single), and that some find themselves working more like 70+ hours a week.

School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC) sets out an allocation of 1265 hours per school year that head teachers can ‘direct’ teachers for school related activity across 195 days a year. Of those 1265 hours, an amount not less than 10% of an individual’s timetabled teaching hours must be ring-fenced and identified for planning, preparation and assessment. None of these stipulations apply to anyone paid on the leadership spine. Importantly, there is a recognition in STPC that the job is not expected to be done solely within those hours.

Within the interpretation of this paragraph sits the workload battleground. What is ‘reasonable’? Where does ‘directed’ time end and ‘expected’ time begin? It cuts to the heart of so many issues around professional agency, the expectations of leaders, the priorities of the teaching unions, the influence and consequences of accountability measures. In the end, though, our answer to these questions shape how attractive, sustainable and effective our profession is. ‘Reasonable’ is a dangerously opaque adjective that is ultimately defined in a school setting by leaders to whom the guidance doesn’t apply.

The teaching unions handle this issue badly, but I have sympathy for their dilemma. Too often they end up arguing over what can be sandwiched into 1265, whether a call home takes five minutes or ten, whether collecting in exam papers should be something a teacher does and so on. Many teachers have little time for such arguments because it can smack of ‘jobs-worthiness’ and sit uncomfortably with their own sense of professionalism. The unions, understandably, seek to hold leaders to account for 1265 because they are far-less able to do so around paragraph 51.7.

OFSTED has a clear role to play, and I have sympathy for their dilemma. They recognise that the inspection framework is a document they can wield but not control. The unintended consequences of leaders (often under the ‘guidance’ of snake-oil consultants) interpreting the need for ‘incisive feedback’ that pupils ‘use effectively’ are manifold and often very damaging. Examples of wildly unreasonable marking and feedback policies abound, and these are often imposed with the confident lie that ‘OFSTED will want to see…’. HMI and inspectors have tried hard to counter this, but the reality is that the current climate of high-stakes, graded outcomes for schools frightens leaders. Every ‘brave’ head moved on following an inadequate inspection report only strengthens the ‘mimetic isomorphism’ within schools that Dr Becky Allen recently cited in her excellent Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture.

Teachers are reporting an average term-time working week of around 55 hours. This is wildly out of proportion with 1265, meaning that the reality of ‘reasonable additional hours’ is almost 70% more than the time managers can direct. That is not only unsustainable, it is inefficient and uncontrollable.

1265/195 = 6.5 hours to a working day, 32.5 hours a week over 39 school weeks.
55 hours a week over 39 school weeks = 2145 hours and an 11 hour working day.

Where could we go from here? 

Dr Becky Allen argues powerfully for legislated and fixed lead-in times for assessment and curriculum reform, an explicit 35-hour working week, reform of inspection methods, and leadership that is supportive of autonomy.

She also argues that the ‘auditing’ culture of school leadership needs to change to enable a ‘trust-culture’ and re-invigorate this autonomy. I agree with most of what she says, but would argue that there needs to be a careful distinction drawn between leadership activities that ‘audit’, and those that seek to evaluate and understand the quality of teaching in a school. We should seek to eliminate leadership by spreadsheet, but encourage more leadership presence and example in classrooms. Trust should never be blind, and teachers and leaders need to work together to ensure that reducing tasks that are about compliance and audit does not lead to closed doors, ‘private’ classrooms and a potential decline in collaboration, professional enquiry and standards.

What if the education unions came together to negotiate an INCREASE in 1265? Sound crazy? Bear with me. The standard riposte to stories in the press around teacher workload is the apparently generous 13 weeks of the year in which teachers don’t teach. What if we were to help close down that argument by changing our contracts and explicitly giving teachers professional agency over an additional several working weeks in the year?

I’m not suggesting we alter the 195 days leaders can open schools and direct teaching. I am suggesting that we explicitly measure a teaching contract over 46 or 47 working weeks of 35 hours (with 5 or 6 weeks recognised, but not ring-fenced, as paid holiday). We should then require school leaders to audit and account properly for how much time over and above 1265 a year their policies and practices take. Head teachers would still only be able to explicitly direct 1265 hours of teacher time, but they would need to be able to audit and account for around 1645 of teacher activity. For the unions, this would be a strong and brave negotiating platform. They would be offering 30% more explicit working time in return for the removal of paragraph 51.7, and a more rigorous means of holding leaders to account for the time they expect the job to take.

This would give teachers contractually explicit professional agency over how they spread their work over a reasonable period of time (including 13 weeks during which schools are closed). It would also require leaders to more carefully evaluate and measure the impact of the additional work activity they ask of their teachers. 

We have already seen that teachers spend at least 70% more time than 1265 hours on their work, so this would only go some of the way to addressing that gap. Further reductions could come from the type of measures Becky and others have outlined. However, it doesn’t solve the issue of teachers with responsibilities feeling they can’t cope, or feeling that they need to reduce their contracts to fit it all in. It doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we are simply expecting teachers to teach too many hours. It doesn’t change the fact that we too often ask virtually the same of a teacher paid £23k as we do one paid £39k. It doesn’t help those paid on the leadership spine who are struggling with no contractual limits on what can be asked of them.

Funding is key to all this and cannot be dismissed. There are many views on how wisely the additional money education received during the Labour years was spent. My own criticism is that a little too much was spent on additional non-teaching staff and leadership (both at school and local authority level), but that nothing was done to address the wild variations in funding between regions. Sensible discussions around funding need to acknowledge that there are indeed areas where savings can be made in many schools, but that we urgently need to level the funding playing field and invest in making teaching a more attractive career if any gains made since the 90s are to be built upon. 

Teacher pay increases incrementally; it seems to me that teaching time should do the same. That costs money, but would make a big difference in those early years of a career.
Do we need to be more explicit about how responsibilities (TLRs) are allocated, and the reduction in teaching time that should accompany that? Maybe we need fewer TLR holders, but to make those roles more possible to perform. Isn’t the truth that TLR is too often used to retain and encourage staff rather than to provide an essentially needed leadership function? With better pay and conditions that may not be necessary.

Evening events. Parents expect these but they can place a huge burden on family life. Parents want written reports but too often don’t read them. They want regular parents’ evenings but too often don’t attend. Some of these activities are simply not efficient or productive uses of precious and expensive time. If, for example, we accept the evidence that most of the written feedback being done is ineffective, we need to educate parents and manage expectations around what they should expect to see. None of this should mean closing down lines of communication or diminishing standards, but it does mean becoming more ruthlessly efficient in terms of how we direct teacher time.

Momentum is building on this issue, and it is high time. The pips are squeaking in budgetary terms, and in terms of the well-being and tolerance of teachers. Recruitment is becoming impossible in some areas, and (bluntly) this is now having an impact on the calibre of people entering the profession. We need to invest time, creativity and funds in making teaching a role that is held in high-esteem, coveted and viewed with prestige, as well as being one that is compatible with a healthy personal and family life. The best school leaders, governors and academy trusts already go a long way to achieving this, but they are constrained by the factors I’ve outlined.

This is not something that ‘the system’ can resolve organically or alone. It will take leadership, negotiation, investment (in every sense of the word), and legislation. The lead, therefore, has to come from government.

Let’s hope they aren’t too distracted.

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