It's August. It's the summer holidays. And we are still hearing about teacher workload.
As a new YouGov poll reveals that a third of our new teachers will work for three weeks of the summer break, work/life balance is again at the forefront of discussion.
Speaking to the TES, NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney, said "teachers' summer workload is increasing year-on-year as the accountability is cranking up. It has never been as many hours as now." Courtney also told the TES that he feared heavy workload for new teachers over the summer was "such a poor introduction to the profession", commenting it was little wonder that so many of our NQTs quit.
A truth universally acknowledged is if you are a teacher, you will experience heavy workload. After all, that's just how it is now, isn't it? "That's teaching." But to what extent does reinforcing this negative narrative in schools to our early-career teachers lead it to become a self-fulfilling one?
From the moment I started my own PGCE, it began: "If you're not crying, you're not doing it right." A tutor laughed. "NO COMPLAINTS" read one of the several "motivational" posters which hung above the PC in the trainee room of my placement school. "Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever." But I was training to be a teacher, not a Marine.
Meanwhile, in the staffroom, a recently-qualified teacher took it upon herself to tell me and another rookie "the way it is". "The workload will definitely damage your social life and relationships," she asserted, to a room of other young teachers, all of whom were gravely nodding over their tea. She recounted the story of how many long hours spent marking and prepping meant she couldn't spend much time with her ex-partner. This eventually took its toll. "Non-teachers can't understand what it's like."
A handy time-management tip, offered to me by a senior colleague, was to always carry marking around with you: "So if I go away to visit my family, I can do it in the car and then again at night after dinner when the kids are asleep."
But it is not okay to normalise that school work will make you cry and interfere with your family life, social life and love life. Nor to sanitise the well-documented crisis we have with workload related-mental health issues by saying that every teacher is under that pressure.
In March, the DfE published the recommendations of three working groups set up in response to the issues raised by the Workload Challenge teacher survey. Ultimately the original report, and to an extent the working group reports, told us what we already suspected: much of the workload is unproductive, duplicated, has no evidence base, or exists in case anyone should want to look at it. Whilst there were welcome recommendations in the reports and attempts to debunk myths, other than vindication, there was little for the average early-career teacher to take away. What is an NQT to do? Announce to senior leaders that, actually, the kind of extensive written feedback described in the school marking policy "has become disproportionately valued by schools and has become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers." Oh, of course not.
Cruelly, it is a rather disheartening read as teachers are confronted with confirmation that most of the work they are up until midnight doing, is unnecessary, or hasn't even been proven to have any impact. How many young teachers and trainees this year will again be burdened with time-consuming low-impact tasks that are ultimately ineffective? Moreover, will people who expect them to be done bother to question whether they are? Last month, education think tank LKMco published its research on what makes an effective middle leader. Whilst good relationships with their team was, according to evidence, the golden rule for effective middle leadership, only 15% of middle leaders felt that using any actual evidence to inform practice was important: ranked 14th out of 15 in order of importance. In order to help new staff whom we are mentoring or managing get on top of workload, established staff must objectively ask whether what they are asking them to do is a "must do", rather than a "nice to do", or even worse, something that's their own personal preference.
We tell new teachers to speak out, tell someone if it becomes too much. But all too often when someone first expresses that it is becoming too much, they are dismissed with "but that's teaching!" This is not acceptable. To retain teachers we must ensure that intervention happens in real terms: that workload is reduced. Whilst new-term workload tips and clever hacks are ubiquitous, with schools being hierarchical places, as a trainee or NQT you are monitored and unestablished so it is hard to make assertive choices about what you will not be doing.
We can never challenge workload whilst schools are at best, standing helplessly by, telling our NQTs that it's the way it is, or worse, claiming it is a political issue, shrugging and saying, "Yeah, but Ofsted though." School policy and culture makes or breaks workload. As embarrassing a truth as it might be, many practices in school do not have anything to do with the government. Nicky Morgan did not decide, at one school in which I worked, that nobody was allowed any morning break. At another, Michael Gove did not decide that all detentions given must be manually chased up and run by that individual teacher. As the DfE announce that school-led routes account for half of all teacher training places taken, we must ensure that new teachers start their careers in environments that set a good precedent for work-life balance, where workload is modelled well by senior staff so that staying in a teaching job is sustainable.
So this term, schools themselves must pledge to stand up against workload and decide they will force the change that is needed to retain this generation of new teachers. We need to put our heads together and vow to relieve the burden, not offer pernicious platitudes that reinforce that it really is that tough. Because Kevin Courtney is right: each year it gets even tougher. If you thought your first year was tough ten years ago, imagine it now.
We are asking new teachers to sacrifice more and more for the learning of young people in our school. We must not forget that many of our students and NQTs are young people learning in our schools too.
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