Teacher workload can’t be tackled in isolation

Our politicians are, suddenly, desperately trying to prove that they care more than each other on teacher workload. Good – but only a bottom-up solution which remodels our approach to education as a whole will make the necessary difference.

Politicians’ rhetoric

All three of the main parties have accepted that there is a problem – an important start. They are also all trying to claim that they hold the solution to it. Tristram Hunt said in yesterday’s Guardian that he wants to tackle the issue (all links open in new window). Nick Clegg is in on the act today. And last month, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan promised to make it a priority.

Call me cynical, but I can’t help but notice the looming election in all this. Morgan couldn’t resist finishing the section of her speech on workload with a pointless dig at Labour (at 6:30):

Hunt’s piece – which, on the whole, I found more encouraging than some of his recent pronouncements on an oath for teachers and master teachers – only got as far as the second sentence before blaming “this government” for the problems (the rot goes much deeper, Tristram, and while I’ve got your attention, you can’t credibly criticise “initiative-itis” while also proposing half-baked new ideas based on a “fact-finding trip” you took to Singapore).

Clegg comes across as well-informed on what the problem is, though I will reserve judgement until I see some tangible impact; he made similar noises in 2010 (a call for reduced class sizes led to a big “I agree with Nick” moment in the election debates) and has made no difference to teachers’ workload in four years of government since.

Workload itself isn’t the issue

Teaching is a naturally stressful job and nothing will ever completely remove that impending sense of doom when a year 9 class is about to walk through the door, but a good teacher can cope with that if they feel that:

  • They are supported
  • The work they are doing is meaningful
  • They are valued

Teachers are not shy of putting hours in, but they have a real problem doing so when one or all of the points above are violated. They will become disillusioned if they are fighting losing battles because systems fight against them; if they’re doing work to cover the back of someone in an office; or if they’re not treated like professionals.

Politicians are the problem

Westminster will not change teachers’ workload in a meaningful way, because the priority there is to try to get one over on other parties. Education, like other public services, is dictated by the demands of the electoral cycle and, to win an election, one must convince the public that you have “improved” things in the previous five years. This usually involves something measurable being perverted to convince someone who doesn’t understand the job that things are going well.

If we want to tackle teacher workload, we must get to the bottom of this. We have to stop patronising the electorate and our teachers. If politicians want to tackle teacher workload, they should stop trying to score points on that or other educational issues and stop treating public sector workers as if they are permanently on the naughty step (I know, wider society pays for the public sector – but good management and leadership involves trusting those who work for you). Accept that teachers mostly know what they are doing and respond to on-the-ground realities rather than dictating from above.

Do that, and you’ll see just how willing teachers are to put the hours in to help the next generation.