Saturday, 27 August 2016

Workload and testing - is that 'just the way it is' - or can unions make a difference?

GCSE results day has been and gone and so teachers, in all sectors, know their summer break is coming to an end. 

Of course, many teachers will have been working hard even while schools have officially been closed. A YouGov poll for the TES confirmed that "a third of those in their first year of teaching expect to work for at least three weeks this summer" in an effort to keep up with the ceaseless demands placed on them. As new NUT General Secretary, Kevin Courtney, commented, "It’s no wonder that there are so many that leave the profession so early". 
Hopefully most teachers will still feel they have at least had something of a summer break - but many will be resigned to the fact that the tsunami of workload - 60 hours a week even by official figures - is soon going to wash over them once again. 

The fact that teachers are having to work weekly hours  well over the European Working Time Directive is, regrettably, no longer 'news'. In fact, it has become such an accepted fact that teachers who question their workload are too often told by managers, even by their own colleagues, "that's just the way it is".

These working hours not only damage teachers' health, they damage education too. Overwork means teachers lack the time and energy to give youngsters the individual support they need. It's also a key factor contributing to a teacher retention crisis that will see many schoolchildren starting a new academic year with yet another set of new staff to get to know and, increasingly, some classes without a permanent qualified teacher at all.

Yet, as Anna-Christina Connelly explains in the Huffington Post this week, the idea that teachers are somehow 'failing' if they complain is even being reinforced by some teacher trainers (especially with so many teachers now being 'trained' on the job by overworked teaching colleagues): She writes: "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"

The UK already has the greatest pupil-teacher ratios in Europe
Anna-Christina's article rightly concludes that, if the scandal of teacher workload is going to be addressed, we certainly can't rely on the Government to act. The now departed Nicky Morgan was at least forced to acknowledge that the problem existed but she, and her successor Justine Greening, support an austerity government determined to cut public spending - and so increase workload. Cuts already means fewer support staff, larger class sizes and cuts to the time teachers have to plan and prepare outside of class. It will also mean more teachers being denied performance-pay increases, further worsening morale and teacher retention. We also have to remember that austerity also means greater child poverty, the inescapable factor that most affects educational outcomes despite the best efforts of hard-working teachers and school staff.

Like a sweat-shop employer that demands yet more from its workforce instead of investing in the new machinery that would really raise productivity, this Government instead relies on league tables, Ofsted and the threat of academisation as a stick to maintain the pressure on schools and their staff. In turn, too many schools simply pass on that pressure by imposing individual exam targets and assessment policies that rarely take account of what it is reasonable to expect - from both teachers and their students.

The result has been not just excessive workload but an 'exam factory' system of schooling that doesn't just demoralise teachers, it makes many children unhappy too. It's one of the factors behind the Children's Society's finding that children in England are "among the unhappiest in the world".

As the Government moves the goalposts by imposing assessment changes on both primary and secondary schools, more young people - and their schools - find themselves unfairly labelled as 'failures'. This year's GCSE results showed a 2% decline in the proportion of A*-C grades. At Key Stage 2, the number of pupils deemed to have met the 'required standard' in maths, reading and writing collapsed from 80% in 2015 to 53% in 2016. In reality, those figures represent only the consequence of shambolic Government changes, not the efforts and abilities of children and schools. However, that won't have stopped many youngsters feeling like 'failures' - nor will it stop the Government using those figures as an excuse to achieve their stated aim of academising more primary schools.

The pressure from high stakes testing is also distorting the curriculum. Schools have sought to protect themselves by doing what's best to meet the latest Government targets - which may not be what's best for their students. For example, as a result of the 'EBacc' measurement excluding arts/creative subjects, last week's GCSE results revealed that entries in these areas were down 21% since 2010 and 8% since 2015, reported as being "the largest year on year decline for over a decade".
This long-term trend will have been accompanied by a decline in the number of teachers employed to teach these subjects. As teachers leave, posts may not have been replaced - perhaps helping secondary schools to 'balance their budgets' but certainly making the trend much harder to reverse.

The damage being inflicted on children, teachers and schools by excessive workload and high-stakes testing is clear to anyone who genuinely understands education. The question is, what can be done about it?

Anna-Christina Connelly has a point when she says that "It’s up to Schools, not the Government, to protect new teachers from workload". Certainly, if more school leaders had had the courage to stand firm instead of simply passing on the pressure from Government onto their staff, then workload would not have reached such intolerable levels. However, it's hard for a school to stand up alone - what's needed is for schools and their staff to stand firm together. The best way to ensure that happens is through trade union action.

July 5 saw another well-supported national strike by NUT members. Anger against workload was, as the NUT's surveying has confirmed, one of the main factors that mobilised teachers to join the action.

July's NUT National Executive agreed that the national campaign on funding and workload obviously has to continue this academic year but that the NUT will also develop a campaign on primary assessment alongside other unions, parents and other campaign organisations. The NAHT General Secretary has already been quoted in the TES confirming that "a boycott remains a possibility for 2017 if discussions with the government are not fruitful".

So it's soon going to be 'back to school' but it can't be back to 'business as usual'. NUT members need to build our campaign against funding cuts, excessive workload and the Government's damaging testing regime, locally and nationally.