Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

There Is No Workload Crisis - Just Politics

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

There Is No Workload Crisis - Just Politics

Article excerpt

As the government tries to placate teachers with promises to reduce stress, we must ask what the activists are really fighting for

Workload is the word of the moment. It has achieved the ultimate accolade: a government inquiry. The Workload Challenge, instituted by Nicky Morgan early in her time as education secretary, famously gathered tens of thousands of responses from teachers and generated concrete policy proposals from the Department for Education.

Given the grip that workload has acquired on the education debate, it is perhaps inevitable that such proposals were deemed insufficient by teacher representatives. But anyone who attended the TES pre-election hustings of current and potential education ministers could see that all the parties had taken strong views on the issue.

This is not something to be celebrated. The rise of the workload discussion risks reversing the hard work of politicians from both major parties over the past 30 years to reorient discussion about education so that children, and not teachers, are its subject. This is not to deny that many teachers feel their workload is too heavy, but three aspects of the debate need further examination: first, the evidence for a system-wide crisis; second, the belief that government can do very much about any valid problems; and third (and most significant), the extent to which the complaints of teacher-activists run counter to the real purpose of their work.

It is my contention that the notion of a workload crisis overstates the nature of teachers' working conditions in a bid to push the government to adopt the kind of regressive anti-accountability ideas that laid waste to large swathes of the English education system in the two decades before the 1988 Education Reform Act.

The evidence for a crisis is varied, and often badly sourced and unreliable. Much of the media attention has focused on unions' polls of their members, in which self-selected activists respond to often leading questions. Activists are also prone to misrepresenting the evidence from other sources: the recent claim that 40 per cent of trainee teachers leave the profession after one year was generated by the kind of sketchy maths that would have the unions howling in anger if it came from politicians. The real number is closer to 9 per cent, a figure that hasn't changed for 20 years.

The trouble with 'trust'

Much of the evidence for a workload crisis tells us only that some teachers consider it to be a problem. But that is hardly surprising: teaching is a demanding, important, front-line role, which is remunerated well and in line with other professions. Jobs with big consequences are always accompanied by stress.

However, even if much of the evidence is anecdotal, it is clear that some teachers, perhaps many, are being asked to carry out tasks of little educational value: triple marking, multi-page plans for every lesson, enforcing badly constructed behaviour management policies and reacting to Chinese whispers about what Ofsted wants. These things happen and they shouldn't. But the existence of absurd demands on some teachers' time does not equate to a nationwide crisis.

Nor does it mean that the government is best placed to fix the problems. When workload crosses the line from legitimately demanding to unmanageable, it is often the result of unskilled interaction between poor-quality school leaders and a badly communicating schools inspectorate. As many successful, high-achieving schools demonstrate, overwork is certainly not a necessary function of an accountable education system. …

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