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Sir Michael Wilshaw and the 3pm Myth

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This week, for the first time since school started three weeks ago, I left work for an appointment at 4pm. On my way past the school gym, I could see members of staff running the table tennis club. I said goodnight to members of staff on their way to epilepsy and anaphylaxis training. I had to send apologies to another training session that was entirely relevant to me as a Sixth Form tutor. The truth is, I felt ridiculously guilty - like I was doing something wrong by leaving so early.

Waking up to a Twitter storm this morning about this very issue - the hours teachers work and how that relates to how effective they are - was a remarkable coincidence. Sir Michael Wilshaw, in an interview with The Times, apparently stated that teachers who leave at 3pm should be paid less than those who work longer hours. According to the BBC report, "inspectors would mark down schools which increased the pay of teachers who were 'out the gate at 3 o'clock'". The reign of Sir Michael thus far has been peppered with controversy - this is a man who likes to make strong statements and to watch the reaction. He is, as a dear Twitter friend put it, "the man who kicked the hornet's nest". The hornets are agitated and yet again, despite perhaps noble intentions, Sir Michael has succeeded in further alienating the teaching workforce.

As much as I am tempted to launch into a fully-fledged tirade against such tomfoolery, I understand the need for the issues to be unpicked. The "3pm" myth is a long-standing one; teachers apparently work from 9am to 3pm and have ridiculous amounts of holiday. If people want to believe this myth, they will and no amount of hand-wringing on my part is going to change that fact. I can only hope that if someone genuinely wants to know what the working life of a teacher is like, they will attempt to walk a mile in the shoes of a real teacher. Another facet of the 3pm myth that is often overlooked is the idea that people who leave early are somehow less effective than those who don't. In the last ten years, I have been fortunate to work with highly-effective people. I did not measure their effectiveness on the hours they worked. I knew them as individuals, with children, or appointments, or outside interests and hobbies. I also knew they were reliable, regardless of the time they left the school building. I often admired those who could leave early - my own working habits meant that I was often inefficient and needed to learn to work smarter, not harder. I have started to understand that concept now, ten years on.

The advice I give now to trainee teachers is to find the work pattern that suits them - I have seen trainees work themselves into the ground because they have felt the pressure to stay late, instead of going home, having a hot bath and a good dinner - and spending time with loved ones. What is the point of me giving that advice when it seems that pay might be related to the presenteeism part of performance?

The article seems to suggest that Ofsted may punish schools that allow staff to maintain, in some way, shape or form, a work-life balance. This seems ludicrous on many levels. Not only does it counter the advice teachers are given to motivate children, it ignores the basics of human motivation. Simply telling people to work harder and for longer does not mean that they will want to. They won't work longer hours, even if their pay is performance related because most teachers now recognise the adverse effects of long hours during the week and weekends truncated by marking and planning - most teachers know that there needs to be some respite somewhere. The assumption that if you leave early - perhaps because you have childcare commitments, perhaps because you are a carer, perhaps because you know you work better in the evenings at home - it means that somehow you are not committed to addressing educational disadvantage, is fundamentally flawed. The BBC article goes on to say that "Sir Michael also said any teacher who did not wish to act as a surrogate parent in poor areas to pupils who lacked support at home did not deserve a salary increase." If you take the childcare argument, Sir Michael suddenly seems to be creating a strange contradictory situation in which parents who are teachers in inner-city schools should leave their own children with another so that a) they can afford to look after their own children and b) so that they can act as a "surrogate" to someone else's child.

I work in an inner-city academy. The staff are more than aware of the need to act as "surrogate" parents - for the whole day, not just in those hours after school. What delights me about my colleagues is the recognition that acting as surrogate parents does not create a long-term solution to a problem - community education, parental involvement and facilitating parents' taking of responsibility as just as important. Our staff room debates are illuminating and powerful.

To go back to the point, if, as some have suggested, the "3pm" comment is a 'caricature' and not to be taken literally, then I question the wisdom of the man who chooses to use it. A good leader can look out across his workforce and influence change without grossly offending individuals, because he recognises that they are individuals. A good leader recognises that working on intrinsic motivation is much more likely to lead to positive outcomes than dangling the carrot of extrinsic motivation. I'm pretty certain it is an established fact that whipping your workforce to make them work faster and harder may work in the moment, but that it breeds resentment and the possibility of mass exodus.

Others have argued that Wilshaw's latest comments are merely a reiteration of changes to the appraisal system. Again, the foolishness of publicly associating performance with a 'caricature' of the early-leaving teacher means that the real point disappears. Schools have to reward those who work hard and not reward those who don't. Unfortunately, generalising about whether this happens is entirely unhelpful to his case. By saying "In last year's report, we said that 40% of lessons overall were not good enough. And yet everyone is getting a pay rise. Hey! Something is wrong with the system", he accuses senior leadership teams of wilfully ignoring poor performance. Language is a powerful thing and one that every leader should use carefully. Is "everyone" getting a pay rise? As someone on the Upper Pay Scale, I know that I had to meet all of my performance management targets and then some, in order to get on to UPS1. I will have to do the same this year. I also know people who have been turned down for progression on to that pay scale, not because they left work too early, but because they didn't meet their targets. The targets were reset and they had to try again.

I do wonder whether the general perception of teachers in this country is informed largely by three main sources: Grange Hill, Teachers and Waterloo Road. It would be a real shame, when the profession has moved on from elbow patches, donkeys in corridors and smoking behind the bikesheds whilst discussing a workplace romance, to see that undone by the constant barrage of generalisation about the way teachers perform. Today's comments only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of teachers - and the media will report them as such - and this is something Sir Michael Wilshaw needs to be much more aware of. Or even care more about.