Sunday, 2 October 2016

Solving the workload crisis - winning an enforceable limit on teachers’ weekly working hours


There are many threats to teachers and education that need to be urgently combated – not least funding cuts and the educational damage being done by SATs, selection and academisation. However, if there’s one issue that most concerns teachers whenever I speak at school or Division meetings, it’s teacher workload.

I am posting this blog as a personal suggestion about what could be done to solve the teacher workload crisis, particularly drawing on the news that a Fair Workload Charter has been agreed in Nottingham that proposes a two-hour daily limit on teacher workload on top of directed time.

Teacher workload - the facts

Teacher workload is driving teachers out of the classroom. The current expectation that teachers work long hours, at the end of the school day and at weekends, is damaging the lives of teachers and their families.  Its consequences - turnover, stress and demoralisation - are also damaging education.

The statistics are undeniable but here are a few key facts – all taken from non-NUT sources:

  • The latest DfE workload survey (2013) reported that primary teachers work, on average, 59 hours a week, 55 in secondary schools. The average teacher reported that they worked 12-14 hours in the evenings and at weekends, mostly on marking and planning.
  • A more recent March 2016 Guardian survey of teachers recorded 82% as saying their workload was “unmanageable”. More than three-quarters said they worked between 49 and 65 hours a week. 75% said their workload was having a serious impact on their mental health. In turn, 79% of schools said they were struggling to recruit or retain teachers.
  • The latest DfE teacher workforce analysis (2015) shows that the annual 'wastage' rate - the numbers of teachers no longer teaching anywhere within the state sector from one year to the next – has now risen to over 1 in 10 in both the primary and secondary sectors for the first time.
  • The UK also has the greatest pupil-teacher ratios in Europe, with rising class sizes adding to the workload burden of marking, planning for individual needs and data management.

The solution – a limit on working hours

In response to rising concerns about the unsustainability of current teacher workload, the DfE’s Independent Teacher Workload Review Groups issued a series of recommendations to reduce the workload associated with marking, planning and data management. However, given the same DfE is applying relentless pressure on schools to constantly ‘improve’ or face outside intervention – and pressure is similarly applied to teachers through the threat of denial of pay progression – I fear that the recommendations alone may only have limited effect. While the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document continues to state that a teacher has to work ‘such additional hours as may be necessary to discharge  effectively your professional duties’, then teachers have no clear legal protection against excessive working hours that may be demanded of them by their managers.

Over years of debating this issue with colleagues, I have concluded that the solution has to be to introduce an enforceable weekly limit that would allow teachers to insist that whatever marking, planning, data management and other demands were placed on them, the overall workload must be able to be completed within that weekly limit.

Significantly, the need to impose a weekly limit on working hours is exactly the conclusion that has been arrived at by Nottingham’s Education Improvement Board (EIB), as highlighted in the Guardian. In conjunction with school staff unions, they have issued a Fair Workload Charter that includes, amongst other useful recommendations, this key expectation:

“the workload requirements of all policies should be reasonably  deliverable within an additional maximum two hour period, unless other contractual arrangements apply. For those with additional leadership responsibilities, a further one hour a day may be required”

I take that as meaning that, for a classroom teacher, no teacher could be asked to carry out tasks that take more than two hours on top of the school day and, presumably, none at the weekends. The precise definition of ‘additional leadership responsibilities’ might need unpicking but the extra ‘leadership’ hour would still help limit the particular pressures falling on school ‘middle managers’.

There are, of course, other ways of calculating a weekly limit which could be considered. The Nottingham Charter appears to set down approximately a 42 hour working week for a classroom teacher. This still works out at roughly an 8am – 5pm working day. That’s long but, especially if it came with a clear guarantee of no weekend work, would be considerably less than most teachers are working now.

The formulation reached by the Nottingham IEB is certainly one solution that could be applied by other employers. It could also be applied by the Secretary of State through a new Schoolteachers Pay and Conditions Document that finally gives real legislative limits to teacher working hours.

How could such a weekly limit be won – and enforced?

Nottingham IEB’s approach is to encourage schools to sign-up to the Charter so that they can then attract staff by using the ‘EIB fair workload’ logo in their advertisements and publicity. Against a background of increasing recruitment and retention difficulties, unions offering to endorse good employers to their members could certainly encourage both individual schools and wider employers – whether Academy Chains or Local Authorities – to follow the Nottingham model. Organising with members in schools to develop a collective bargaining approach to win similar agreements with other employers could certainly be a productive strategy for teaching unions.

However, the counteracting pressures on schools - Ofsted, league tables and spending cuts – means that too few employers will be as far-sighted as Nottingham. Therefore, alongside negotiations, unions will have to also prepare an industrial action strategy. This might require preparing members to take action in individual schools or across a whole employer.  This might require significant resources – but could win significant victories for overworked teachers – and for education overall.

Of course, winning an agreement through organising and collective bargaining will be only just a start – there will need to be an ongoing campaign to make sure the agreement applies in practice. For example, although the EiS union won a 35-hour contractual working week for Scottish teachers, in practice EiS members report having to work an average 46.5 hours a week. Clearly, any agreement on hours must be matched with school policies that explain how an hourly limit can be met. Above all, they must be backed up by union organisation in the workplace, with a confident union group and rep ready to step-in to make sure agreements are adhered to by both staff and management.

One advantage of the ‘additional two-hour’ limit adopted in Nottingham is it might be possible for many teachers to work those two hours before and after school – and therefore a culture built, and enforced, that teachers should not be taking marking and planning home with them when they leave. (although, as it is ‘non-directed time’ teachers should have  flexibility that allows them to meet individual commitments when they need to leave earlier). That would be a huge step forward.

But how will the work get done?

Winning support from members for such an hourly workload limit will require unions being able to answer some key questions that will inevitably be raised by staff:

Q) If I cut down on my workload, what if I don’t meet my performance management targets?

To address those understandable fears, I believe that, as part of the collective bargaining negotiations, unions would need to insist that an agreed Charter includes a guarantee that:

(i) no teacher will be set performance management targets – nor indeed ‘capability’ targets - that require them to work beyond the weekly limit on working hours
(ii) all teachers will automatically progress along union-endorsed salary scales

Q) What work can I get rid of to cut my existing workload in order to meet the new hourly limit?

First of all, we have to win teachers, not least middle managers, to the understanding that something HAS to be cut – continuing as we are at present is simply unsustainable.

Schools will need to arrive at policies that make clear how the limit can be achieved. The conclusions in the DfE Workload Reports provide some starting-points to how this could be done. How often does formal marking really need to be done?  What level of detail in planning is really needed – and how can shared planning and use of existing schemes of work and resources cut down on that planning time? What data really needs to be ‘captured’ and what systems can cut working time?

Of course, a workload crisis of the seriousness facing us may require radical solutions. While possibly controversial with some parents - and schools would need to explain that a Workload Charter was being introduced precisely because it is educationally essential -  one Essex school has recently concluded that the solution is to scrap homework altogether.

Of course, the other ‘radical’ but obvious solution, as explained below, is to increase PPA time so that every teacher has time to plan, prepare and assess during the working day. That could mean early closures to allow planning and meeting time – as some schools still operate.

More fundamentally it means having more qualified teachers (and not underpaid, unqualified cover) to increase teacher non-contact time - but that requires funding. This means our dispute over funding (see below) is inextricably linked to our campaign over workload and, indeed, workload was the issue that brought so many young teachers onto the strike rallies and demonstrations last July.

The reality as budget cuts start to bite, is that PPA is getting worse, not better. Some primary teachers report that the supposedly statutory minimum 10% non-contact time is being eaten into. Secondary teachers, who once could generally expect to have at least 20% non-contact time (‘free periods’) in their timetables, are seeing loadings increase every year – rising to match the inadequate 10% minimum in primary schools. Instead, we need a minimum 20% PPA for all teachers.

UPDATE (10.10.16): I should add - although it will seem obvious to teachers but not perhaps to politicians - that funding PPA by increasing class sizes is no solution either. The latest Education Policy Institute report again confirms the shocking levels of teacher workload in England using TALIS data. However, according to a Schools Week report, it concludes that it is “unlikely that teachers can cut down on workload unless classes are expanded so they have more time to prepare for fewer lessons". However, increasing class sizes are already one of the drivers of rising workload with teachers having to spend longer on marking and preparation for larger numbers of pupils. It is also an educationally damaging proposal that would leave children with less individual support. The real solution to teacher workload, alongside enforcing a limit on the demands made on staff, is to invest in more teachers.

Winning a Workload Charter nationally -  the NUT’s dispute with the Secretary of State

July’s day of national strike action by NUT members in England was part of our national dispute with the Secretary of State over the need for the funding and legislative changes to allow:

  • National collective bargaining on pay and conditions in all schools and academies
  • Pending a new collective bargaining structure, for pay and all other terms and conditions to be no worse than those in the STPCD and Burgundy Book
  • A significant improvement in the conditions of employment under which teachers work, in particular a limitation on class sizes to no more than 30 in the first instance
  • Reduction in teachers workloads, in particular through limitation on marking, data handling and planning
  • Reintroduction of pay portability, the pay spine points, fixed pay scales and removal of the requirement for all pay progression to be performance related
  • A significant improvement in measures to ensure teacher retention, including security of employment.

The discussion above over winning a Workload Charter can be seen as part of this ongoing dispute  –with the aim not just to win battles locally but to win:
1) a nationally collectively bargained Workload Charter that applies to all schools, maintained and academies that sets an enforceable statutory limit on overall working hours

2) funding to allow a limit on class sizes of no more than 30 in the first instance plus a minimum 20% non-contact time for all teachers to reduce workload requirements
3) fixed pay scales and removal of the requirement for all pay progression to be performance related so that teachers won’t be bullied into taking on workload over statutory limits


I would welcome any feedback on these suggestions but I hope it can encourage a discussion about how we can finally – and urgently – solve the teacher workload crisis.

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