The DfE is making much of their efforts to reduce the workload of teachers; their 2019 teacher workload survey (TWS) report shows a drop in reported working hours of teachers compared with the TWS 2016.

We do not doubt that DfE officials are serious in their efforts to cut unnecessary workload for teachers and its workload reduction toolkit provides schools with ideas and trackers for this purpose. Whilst the survey’s results do point to a slight drop in working hours, the fact that so many teachers still cite the same things as key drivers of workload shows that no amount of tinkering with toolkits can solve a problem with roots in an education system with unhealthy levels of accountability, high-stakes testing and stress, without addressing the more fundamental causes of high workload.

We must look at the headline figures on working hours in context. The DfE reports that working hours have dropped to 49.5 hours from 54.4 hours in 2016. This is much nearer the working time directive of 48 hours per week. However, this includes part-time worker hours, which skews the average, making it seem lower than it really is. In reality, full-time teachers are still working, on average, over 50 hours per week; 52.9 hours down from 56.7 in 2016.

The proportion of part-time teachers has risen by one per cent since 2016, now equating to 23.7 per cent of all teachers across the workforce; the average working hours for those people reduces the average for the whole workforce. There are many reasons why teachers decide to work part time and we welcome that opportunities for flexible working are increasing, albeit slowly. Yet NEU members report that large numbers of teachers turn to part-time roles in order to control their working hours. So, effectively, they are paying to cut their out of hours workload. 

Crucially, it is only in non-teaching activities where hours have been reduced; the number of hours spent in face to face teaching have not reduced. Therefore, the survey’s results point to the fact that activities such as planning, marking, data collection and so on have reduced. Every teacher in the land will have a view on whether that is the case for them. There must be a certain amount of out of classroom work associated with every hour spent with pupils in the classroom. Perhaps the only way to cut working hours further is to reduce the number of contact hours per week.

The proportion of teachers who described their workload as a “very serious” or “fairly serious” problem is still extremely concerning. Over one third of middle leaders described their workload as a very serious problem. Teachers in Ofsted-rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ schools are much more likely to report workload as a “serious problem”; 40 per cent compared to around 28 per cent in schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Perhaps this points to the excessive data trails required of teachers in order to show that leaders are on top of the issues in their schools.

Looking at early experiences of the new Ofsted framework, we’re worried that the pressure has shifted unfairly onto middle leaders and subject leads, something that the NEU will be keeping a close eye on. The new framework doesn’t address the workload generated by league tables and exams. Curriculum “deep-dives” impose a new set of workload challenges. If middle leaders are pushed too far, the education system risks losing dedicated teachers, and the supply of future leaders shrinks further.

Attrition among young and new teachers is known to be high; a third of teachers leaving before 5 years’ service is disastrous in terms of spending on Initial Teacher Training and the severe teacher shortages that schools are facing. At the other end, teachers in their 50s are finding their working lives, coupled with outside demands, for example caring responsibilities, unmanageable. Like those choosing to work part-time, many teachers in this age group take the financial hit themselves. By opting for an actuarially reduced pension at some point after they reach 55, they pay with a significant part of their pension to leave the career they have dedicated themselves to. Over the last several years, around one third of all retirements have been with actuarially adjusted (for early payment) benefits.

Young and new teachers find it difficult to see teaching as a sustainable career, older teachers find it impossible to balance the demands of life and work, and middle leaders are the most likely to regard their workload as a serious problem; no category of teaching professional is satisfied with their workload and work-life balance. We need bigger ambition for change from the government with actions to match.