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 to do so. 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 take the headline figures on working hours within their 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, so that skews the average, making it seem lower than it really is. For full-timers, the relevant figures are 52.9 in 2019 down from 56.7 in 2016. So it remains that full-time teachers are still working, on average, over 50 hours per week, and some many more.
The proportion of part-time teachers has risen by 1% since 2016, now equating to 23.7% of all teachers across the workforce; the average hours for those people brings down the average for the whole workforce. There are many reasons for teachers to decide to work part-time and we welcome that incidence of various forms of flexibility for teachers is increasing, albeit slowly. However, from what NEU members tell us, 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, all of the hours reduced are in non-teaching activity and 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 seeing their workload is a ”very serious” or “fairly serious” problem is still extremely concerning. Over one third of middle leaders say they see 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% compared to around 28% in Good or Outstanding-rated schools. 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. We must ask, however, is what teachers are being asked for over and above what they usually provide, vital to making improvements, or is it panic work requests?
Looking at early experiences of the new Ofsted framework, we are worried that the pressure is shifted unfairly onto middle leaders and subject leads, something that the NEU will be keeping a close eye on. Data doesn’t go away as league tables and exam results still drive that. 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 ITE, as well as in retaining their experience. At the other end, teachers in their 50s are finding their working lives, coupled with outside demands (caring responsibilities, for example) 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, the 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.