Why we should not ignore teachers’ ever-increasing workloads

On Friday, a year after it was carried out, the DfE finally published the results of the teacher workload survey. It does not make pretty reading, and it’s hardly surprising that Gove wanted to sit on it for as long as possible, finally slipping it out on a Friday ahead of its planned publication date and not accompanied by a press release.

What is frustrating is that it was virtually ignored by the mainstream media, the story being picked up by only The Guardian and The Mirror. With the press being quick to pounce on stories which paint our schools and teachers in a negative light, this was one insult that those over-worked professionals really didn’t need.

Because the fact is that over-worked teachers should concern us all. And there is no doubt that they are over-worked: even before the results of this survey were released, and before the impact of Gove’s interference was really felt, surveys indicated that teachers are ‘amongst the hardest workers in the country‘ and are ‘more likely to work overtime than employees in any other sector‘. Even the DfE survey is unlikely to reveal the true picture – after a further year of Tory reforms, and certainly if the experience of my former colleagues is representative, the hours teachers are working are if anything even greater.

It is personal experience – mine and that of my colleagues and friends – that makes these figures especially pertinent. Teachers regularly falling ill as holidays approach and using their time off to physically recover from the stresses of the term-time workload. Teachers attending 7am meetings as there is no time to fit them into the working day. Teachers holding classes on Saturdays and throughout school holidays to help students achieve the grades they deserve in the face of changing qualifications. Add to this the stark evidence of the ‘sharp rise in serious mental health problems among school staff‘ and it’s clear we have a problem.

Teachers who are stressed and tired and over-worked are simply not going to be able to do the best for our children. Teaching is a job which requires intellectual rigour, creativity and empathy. In the classroom, you need to be able to think on your feet, to juggle numerous different tasks and to slip seamlessly between many different roles. You need to be aware of, and act upon, the needs of each and every child in that room – that’s thirty different learning journeys, not to mention the huge variety of personal needs that children arrive at school with each day. Stressed out teachers will snap, will make rash comments or miss the needs that are really important. A knock-on effect on behaviour is inevitable, and in the interests of survival learning will fall further down the list of priorities.

Most of the teachers I know will put the students’ needs before their own: will work themselves to the bone in term time, sacrificing social lives and personal relationships because they feel that their job puts them in a privileged position, one which they should not take for granted. It is an amazing feeling to be able to enable young people to learn, to help them break free of the shackles of their lives and to become who they want to be. It is this I think that leads to the somewhat ironic situation we are in where despite drowning under their workload and frustrated by constant challenges to their professionalism teachers are still found to be the happiest workers in Britain.

There are also of course the minority of teachers who refuse to sacrifice their own mental health for the sake of a job, and will put in place their own safeguards during term time to reduce their workload and make their careers more sustainable. And then these are the ones who are branded lazy, letting down our young people. But I wonder sometimes whether they’re not in fact the sensible ones.

Because what is the alternative? Seemingly to abandon the profession altogether. I am guilty of this – at least for the time being, I can see no way of combining the demands of a teaching career with being a mum. And I am not alone: despite loving their job, almost half the nation’s teachers have considered quitting the profession in the past year. Ofsted chief Wilshaw has commented on the ‘national scandal‘ of two-fifths of teachers quitting within five years. He cites inability to cope with pupils’ poor behaviour as the cause, though studies indicate that unsustainable workload alongside bureaucracy and lack of professional autonomy is more likely to be to blame.

It is partly for this reason that Tristram Hunt’s declaration that he will not seek to reverse any of Gove’s initiatives if Labour are elected is so galling. I understand his point that teachers do not need more change for the sake of it, but Gove has done so much to undermine the profession and to fracture our education system that someone needs to be prepared to put it right.

There are a raft of education professionals clamouring to be heard so that we can begin to do just that, but we seem to be at a particularly low ebb in terms of the nation’s respect for teachers. Our politicians (as well as the media) need to acknowledge that our teachers are working too hard, and then, alongside those education professionals, they need to work out what they’re going to do about it. Because whilst it might be our teachers who suffer in the short term it is our children’s futures that we’re really risking here.

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