Tuesday 27 April 2021

We need a different strategy to really tackle workload

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Excessive workload has long been the greatest concern for most NEU members. It’s the main reason why so many teachers leave the profession altogether every year, unable to put up any longer with 50+ hour weeks, lost weekends and evenings and the constant pressure from unreasonable demands and targets.

To make a difference to members’ lives, and to education overall, workload must therefore be central to the Union’s organising and negotiating strategy. A co-ordinated emphasis this term on working hours is a good place to start. However, a focus on teachers’ ‘Directed Time’ will only make quite limited gains. If we really want to tackle workload, a much wider strategy is needed. 

A Directed Time campaign alone can only make limited gains

The Union is calling for all reps this term to bargain in their workplace to ensure a 1265 hours Directed Time calendar is in place for next year. To be precise, what’s really needed is a 1265-hour time budget plus a calendar which shows how directed meetings and events are set out over the year ahead. That way reps can also argue for the policy that used to be enforced by the legacy NUT ‘action short of strike action’ of “meetings outside session times should be held on average no more than once a week”.

As the Directed Time budget examples in the Union’s materials show, insisting on a maximum of 1265 directed hours can help ensure that staff meetings are limited to one a week, parents’ evenings limited in duration, and pupil supervision limited to the start and end of sessions, not over lunch break. It could also protect against the minority of schools trying to operate extended school days. But, while all organising gains are welcome, a focus on Directed Hours will not tackle the main workload burden. To do that, we must set the bar much higher.

Teachers’ existing contracts are too weak to enforce a limit on overall workload

Reps are being asked to use paragraphs 51 and 52 of most teachers’ national conditions - the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document – as a bargaining tool. However, any rep, or any employer, reading those contractual conditions will soon come across the sting in the tail, paragraph 51.7:

51.7 “In addition to [directed hours] a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties, including in particular planning and preparing courses and lessons; and assessing, monitoring, recording and reporting on the learning needs, progress and achievements of assigned pupils”.

In other words, beyond the word ‘reasonable’, limited PPA rights, and a reference in 52.4 to the need for a ‘satisfactory’ work/life balance, the STPCD sets no enforceable limit on the kind of work that mainly keeps teachers in school until late - and eats up their evenings and weekends too. Planning, preparation, assessment, grading, marking, recording, and reporting all lie outside ‘directed time’. 

In short, the STPCD teachers’ contractual conditions are just too weak to be used as an effective bargaining tool. We will not solve the burden of teacher workload unless we mount a bargaining and negotiating strategy which seeks to puts a limit on overall working hours, not just directed time.

2021 Conference and Workload Charters

2021 NEU Annual Conference policy noted the disgraceful facts that: 

Teachers continue to work more hours per week than the Working Time Regulations maximum of 48 hours, with one study finding that 1 in 4 teachers works more than 60 hours a week;

Higher class sizes and job losses, driven by school budget cuts, have further worsened workload for all staff. 

Support staff workload is also deteriorating with a “job creep” of additional demands being imposed on them on top of their existing duties.

The government’s workplace reviews of planning, marking and data policies have made little, if any, significant impact;

Excessive workload is the key contributor to significant rates of mental health issues among teachers and support staff, as well as the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention where one third of newly qualified teachers leave the profession within five years.

So, what needs to be done beyond bargaining for Directed Time? Conference agreed that the Union must “re-launch workload as a priority campaign for the Union” and also that the Union should “disseminate Workload charters currently in use and carry out an analysis into their effectiveness at reducing workload”. 

Workload Charters, such as those negotiated with Local Authorities in Nottingham and Coventry, seek to put in place stronger workload limits than exist in the STPCD. For example, the Coventry charter calls for a review of planning, marking and data policies that then ensure that “for teachers, the workload requirements of all policies should be reasonably deliverable within an additional ten hours per week”. On top of directed hours, this could cut overall working time to closer to 40 hours.

Yes, the effectiveness of existing Charters, including how workplace organisation has helped ensure working hours have been limited in practice, needs to be reviewed. But this Conference policy, looking at an overall limit on working time, not just Directed Time, needs to be put into practice.

Win a new National Contract for all educators

There was one more key motion tabled on the Conference agenda that was sadly not reached. A motion that I had drafted, and I was due to propose before debating time ran out, set out a strategy to win a new National Contract for all staff. 

I believe that a campaign for such a National Contract is the best way to win on workload – as well as on pay and conditions generally. Such a contract must also include agreed common national pay scales and an end to performance-related pay. But ending PRP is also a workload demand too. The threat of withholding pay progression, often based on imposed test and exam targets, is too often used to bully staff into working excessive hours.

Winning a new National Contract for all would mean that we no longer have to rely on the weak provisions in the STPCD for teachers. It would also overcome the fragmentation in national conditions for all staff brought about by academisation and increasing school-by-school discretion.

To end excessive teacher workload, I propose that our National Contract demands should include:

A minimum 20% planning, preparation, and assessment time for all within the timetabled week.

A minimum additional 10% release time for staff with additional duties e.g. subject leadership.

A maximum limit on working hours over 195 working days.

Trade-union negotiated policies that ensure teachers can complete their planning, preparation and assessment and other responsibilities within this limit.

But to make this possible, and to prevent workload just being transferred to other colleagues instead, we must also demand sufficient staffing to meet needs. By implication, we also need an end to the high stakes testing and accountability regime that lies behind so many of the demands on schools. We would also need a trade-union negotiated class size and staffing policy and negotiating structures between elected reps and management to be set up with every school and employer, backed up by strong NEU organisation, to ensure that the Contract is being fully complied with.

Don’t delay – implement a strategy to win

I believe that such a strategy could lift the sights of every educator, every NEU rep and Local Officer. It could bring the whole Union together around a campaign that would really make a difference to every NEU member. It would also allow us to explain to parents and the public our different vision to the current ‘exam factory’ curriculum – properly funded and without constant staff turnover.

Yes, as my proposed Conference Motion also stated, such a unified national campaign would also need unified national action to win it, including preparation for a national ballot for strike action. Ballots could also be counted by employer so that, alongside national negotiations, the Union can also pursue ‘disaggregated’ action to make gains on an employer-by-employer basis too.

Yes, any ballot also needs careful prior preparation - taking the campaign out to every member, using what we have learned from using online methods like Zoom, as well as the physical meetings and rallies. It also requires the ‘technical’ preparations of making sure we are ‘ballot ready’ to meet the legally imposed thresholds, with correct home addresses and mechanisms in place for reps to check members are returning their formal votes postally in as high a turnout as possible.

But it is not enough to simply call for a ‘National Contract’ as a slogan – then put off building for it to some unknown time in the future. That will leave more exhausted members quitting the job. It means continuing to expect individual reps to try and make the most of an unacceptably weak set of conditions, when what we need is for the Union to give a national lead and start organising across the whole Union for a National Contract for all. 

The newly elected National Executive should start giving that lead by agreeing the Motion that was never reached at NEU Conference, and start work without delay on preparing to win a new National Contract for all staff. 

That’s what I would be calling for, and organising for, as new Deputy General Secretary of the NEU.

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