What can governors do to address teacher workload?

3 Jan

Many governors are keen to create conducive working conditions that attract quality teachers into the profession and their schools to provide a first-class education for the pupils in it.  Conditions of employment that go towards achieving this noble objective include leadership that nurtures learning and creates a positive, happy atmosphere which motivates the workforce to take initiatives which, in turn, motives pupils to work well, make good (if not outstanding) progress and attain high standards  Central to this is securing a work-life balance for these teachers.

Accordingly, one of governors’ default responsibilities is securing the well-being of all staff, most especially teachers, albeit this duty is mainly exercised through the headteacher.   The problem is that there are a number of factors outside the control of governors such as constant legislative changes vis-à-vis the curriculum, testing and examinations, league tables and, of course, the pressures emanating from Ofsted, the watchdog.   These factors increase the stress levels for teachers.

II          Action by Secretary of State

The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has recognised this and begun taking steps to do something about addressing the problem.  On 22 October 2014, she launched a consultation with the profession, the Workload Challenge, calling on teachers to

(i)         send her their solutions and strategies for tackling workload and describe good practices already in their schools;

(ii)        apprise her about unnecessary tasks that take away from teaching and where these emanate; and

(iii)       let her know what they think should be done to tackle unnecessary workload – by government, their schools and others.

When appointed Secretary of State, Ms Morgan promised to address teacher workload as her first priority.  Addressing the Conservative Party conference in September 2014, she said: “We forget that teachers are not just teachers.  They are also friends and relatives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.  And when we hear of teachers working late into the night marking books, planning lessons, preparing for inspections that may or may not come, I do two things.  I marvel at their dedication, but I also think that there may be a better way.

“I don’t want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well.”

Ms Morgan is keen to ameliorate the teaching force in an alkaline attempt to neutralise the acidic and toxic environment that her predecessor created for good and real reasons.  Ms Morgan recognises that there is a recruitment crisis with schools struggling to recruit English, mathematics and science teachers, a very good reason for addressing teachers’ workload.

A survey carried out by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) revealed that two-thirds of secondary schools were unable to appoint sufficient mathematics teachers and half had problems finding science and English teachers, according to the 800 secondary schools that responded.  Also, 25% of schools were finding it hard to recruit teachers for computing and 10% struggled to fill vacancies for geography, modern languages and design and technology.

The real reason for the measures Ms Morgan is taking is probably to win back the alienated teaching force in the run-up to the general elections in May.

In a live Times Educational Supplement (TES) web-chat on the subject of workload David Law, Liberal Democrat MP and Minister of State for Schools, acknowledged that Ofsted needed to make inspections less onerous by selecting institutions “proportional to the challenges in schools” and the avoidance of “the burden placed on teachers by headteachers who may think they have to follow whatever methods have been praised by Ofsted in other schools”.

There are two problems with this prescription. First, schools that face the greatest number of challenges (which Mr Laws says Ofsted should not trouble too much) are those where there are greatest concerns about the progress and achievements of pupils.  Second, while good headteachers tend to act as punch-bags for the pressures coming from outside, the fact of the matter is that when inspectors visit and judge that teachers are not performing up to the standards required, it’s these same leaders who have their heads on the block.

Ms Nicky Morgan’s consultation closed at the end of the November 2014 following receipt of 43,855 responses – a record for a DfE consultation.   She pledged to issue an action plan early in 2015 based on recommendations that an expert panel is in the process of putting together.  Altogether, 20,394 teachers submitted views over the consultation period.

III         International workload comparison

In England and Wales, teachers are contracted to work for 200 days and 1,265 hours annually.  However, what is not factored in is the extra planning and marking time that they do on top of what the law specifies.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) carried out a workload survey in 28 countries in 2013.  The OECD asked teachers about their average working week broken down by the number of hours they spent teaching and the average total hours they worked each week.   English teachers spent 45.9 hours a week working.  Only Japanese and Singaporean teachers worked longer, i.e. 53.9 and 47.6 hours respectively. Chilean teachers appeared to have the most leisure time in this survey – working on average 29.2 hours a week with the Italians close behind at 29.4 hours.

Shanghai, which was at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables did not participate in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis). However, it is committed to doing so when the OECD does its next round of Talis enquiries in 2018.

The fascinating aspect of this finding was that of the 45.9 hours English teachers work, only 19.6 hours were spent teaching – commonly called “contact time”.   Teaching takes up less than half the work time! In Finland, a country which is near the top of the international league table of pupil achievement, teachers spend 20.6 hours teaching and 36.1 hours at work a week.

In the survey that the DfE commissioned in 2013 in which there were 1,004 returns, teachers revealed that on average, they worked for 50 hours a week with primary and secondary headteachers stating that they worked for more than 60 hours over that period.

Teachers described what dominated their non-contact time – i.e. time away from teaching the pupils.   Pupil or parent contact made up 10% to 14% of a classroom teacher’s workload.   On average, less than 10% of the workload was spent on general administrative duties.  Only 5% or less of a classroom teacher’s time was spent on individual or professional development.

The most common reasons given to explain the increase in unnecessary and bureaucratic tasks were preparation for an Ofsted inspection, an increase in forms and paperwork, in particular duplication in terms of marking and recording pupil progress and data analysis, reporting and evidence gathering.

Three in 10 deputy headteachers and classroom teachers felt that spending more time discussing work with individual pupils would be one of the three things that would improve the quality of teaching and pupil learning.  One in four thought collaborative planning with colleagues would improve pedagogy and the learning environment and another quarter the selection of appropriate resources would.   Headteachers (36%), on the other hand, were more in favour of observing colleagues teaching and another 32% considered that observing good practice in other schools would enhance educational quality and classroom practice in theirs.

Jo Brighouse, a part-time primary school teacher in the Midlands and a TES columnist, said that teacher workload has crept up on her and her colleagues to a point where, after “dealing with the intense and exhausting act of teaching itself, teachers now end each day facing a mountain of paperwork and spend as many if not more hours planning, marking and bureaucracy out of school as they do working face-to-face with children.  So it’s hardly surprising that the pressure of family life is becoming untenable.”

Ms Brighouse appeals to headteachers to be accommodating to the demands of family life and create an ethos of family-friendliness. She remarked that while many are ‘family-friendly’, just as many are not.  This is especially galling as many women go into teaching to share the school terms and holidays with their children.  However, during term time, they are both, washed up and washed out, and have little time for their families. Their conditions threaten domestic bliss.   It takes them time during the holidays to wind down and just when they begin to enjoy the experience, they start preparing for the resumption of the following term.

Dr Fiona Hammans, a headteacher, observed: “It always strikes me as a bit incongruous that schools – all about children and young people – shouldn’t be as family-friendly as they can possibly be, even with the constraints that a teaching timetable brings.”

IV         Governors’ Role

So what can governors do to improve the situation?   Governors have a duty of care to all the staff in the school.  This is fundamental when reviewing working arrangements.   Equally, governors have responsibility for ensuring that the pupils get the best possible deal – a basic entitlement.  It is not always easy to square these two sometimes antithetical requirements.

However, if teachers are overworked, stressed and spent, the children will suffer.  Teachers become unhappy, disorganised and (eventually) so unwell that they go off on long-term illness – generally depression – which is not easy to define leave alone cure – to the detriment of the pupils.   It is then that the pupils suffer big-time.

Many governors have a standard item on the agenda of each governing body meeting – Staff Attendance.  This issue is generally considered ‘below the line’ – i.e. confidentially.  The average attendance of teachers in England is 95.9%.   Where the attendance is at or above this level, governors could praise and thank teachers for their dedication and devotion to the school.  Where attendance is below this figure, the governors need to dig below the surface.

It could be that the absence rate is skewed by long-term absence caused by physical problems that have nothing to do with teacher stress.   It could be that the attendance is suffering because some teachers have developed the Friday-Monday illness syndrome – placing unfair pressure on the colleagues who are assiduously working at school and causing them work overload.  Governors would do well to support the headteacher, who is in the frontline for dealing with this, to take appropriate measures – in extremis – through the capability procedure.

However, where all things are equal and many teachers are the limping unwell (or the walking dead – God forbid) – action is required to review their workloads and see how this may be addressed without damaging the children at the school – who, after all, have only one chance in life.

Of course, the main action falls to the headteacher and the kind of management style she or he has. This, in turn, is affected by the huge responsibilities placed on the shoulders of the headteacher, who not only has to carry the staff and pupils, but the parents and, sometimes, inactive governors.  Needless to say, the governors have a responsibility for the headteacher’s welfare too, which is an issue that will have to be explored in another article……

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