This is going to be about workload, and in particular, Russell Hobby’s piece about whether teacher contracts and fewer holidays might solve the workload problem. I thought this was an appropriate issue on which to return to the keyboard, not least because the reason I haven’t blogged for a while is largely due to the fact that, this year, I broke myself on the workload wheel.
Some of this was self-inflicted. The Blessed Gove imposed a new History A-Level curriculum this year. Yes, I know the exam boards came up with the specifics, but the utterly bizarre shared requirements of the 200-Year Rule, and the History-Must-Happen-Over-A-Century demands, are straight from the same fag packet which Gove used for his risible personal first draft of the History National Curriculum (remember the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy for 6 year-olds, anyone ?). Anyway, like a good conscientious HoD, I decided I should try and teach both papers of the new course, so that I could effectively support my colleagues who were also teaching it. That was a big mistake in hindsight, as teaching yourself a new A-Level history paper is not a small thing, especially when it’s one demanded by a man whose understanding of history is equivalent to that of the stupid lad in The History Boys: “History ? That’s just one bloody thing after another.”
In any case, even without Gove, the thing about history is that there’s a lot of it, and it’s ALL different. There’s bugger-all overlap between US history and UK history. Or French history. Or 20th Century History and 17th Century history. In fact, rather inconveniently, every country in the world has several thousand years of its own internal history, even before you consider international relations. And yet Gove managed to impose a requirement that students can’t specialise in a particular era or a particular country. So the long and the short of it is that teaching yourself TWO brand new A-Level History papers is quite a large thing. Too large, as it happens, for me to manage this year without some serious pain.
Unfortunately, I took aim at my own foot at precisely the time that hand-grenades were going off in my school more generally. Budgetary pressures meant that we had to adopt an A-Level admissions policy which could be described as “Welcome One and All!”, and sixth form classes doubled in size overnight as classes were merged and stacked full of anybody who once expressed a passing interest in watching the History Channel. Hence I find myself personally teaching that new course to more than sixty Year 12 students, plus a further class of twenty Year 13s. Then, just to really make sure I was knackered, the Ebacc-shaped Options system delivered a largest-ever cohort to Year 10, squeezed into fewer classes than last year for those same budgetary reasons, adding a further 50 KS4 students for my marking delight. The coup de grace was delivered by a 12% reduction in non-contact time each week, required by the same budget issues. The result, dear reader, is that despite working a 4 day week, I couldn’t muster the energy or time to write a blog in 6 months.
Now I know there are already a lot of teachers out there currently unwrapping their own bleeding stumps to make comparisons. Hold, my friends, hold ! I do not claim to be the most underwater teacher in the whole ocean. There are others with worse burdens simply in terms of numbers, and that’s before we enter the Monty Python territory which teachers so love to visit :
Teacher 1 : “In my class, I’ve got 35 kids, and an SLT which makes me mark every book every day.”
Teacher 2 : “You think that’s bad ? I’ve got 40 kids in each class. They have to sit on each others’ knees and share books. AND it’s compulsory to do a lunchtime club every day.”
Teacher 3 : “That’s nothing. I teach a thousand kids, half of whom have ADHD. Two hundred of them are in prison and I have to teach them by webinar. And I have to pick them up and drive them home to improve the attendance figures.”
Wilshaw : “Pah! Teachers today don’t know they’re born. When I were teaching, I ‘ad ten classes with 60 hardened criminals in each, and none could read. We ‘ad no books as we ‘ad to burn ’em to melt t’icicles in t’classroom. I set ’em ‘omework four times a day, marked every word with t’right-coloured pen, and made ’em all lunches by cooking whoever failed t’last test. Then I took ’em on a 6-hour run every night to toughen t’buggers up. AND t’ bloody trendy ‘eadmaster used to let ’em juggle knives in school because he said it were “progressive”. By Eckerslike! We still got better results than this mob today, mind you.”
Small voice coming from a coffin : “I had to teach in a Harris school.”
Everyone else : “Yup, ok, that last one wins.”
Anyway, I guess the bottom line is that we all probably have a point when we just break. That point might move around depending on other factors in your life, or maybe it remains fixed and you don’t know where it is until you hit it. Who knows? What I do know, is that I hit my own personal buffers this year. Yet here I am, spending a couple of hours on a Friday evening rambling away again. Why ?
It’s because I spent this half-term doing something exciting : house-hunting in a place where the London house price premium (the cash I free up by selling up in London and moving somewhere else) means I can stop teaching. It’s been astounding to discover that there’s a potential future which doesn’t involve endlessly marking essays. A future in which I would again have time to think, write, live, go out, give time to my children, read and occasionally just stare at the sea with a nice cup of tea (yes, it’s by the seaside). This prospect seems to have put a little bit of gas back in the tank, so to speak. A little bit of me doesn’t quite believe it yet, but this is my last year of teaching. I’m 45, highly experienced, conscientious, excellent sickness record, and I am well-regarded by students and colleagues. And I’m off.
The “why” is a whole blog, I guess, and it’s not just one reason. But a large part of it is simply workload : I can’t sustain the level of work which is required of me to be considered to be doing a good job. Yet because I’m fairly awkward, I’m already refusing to do many of the things which other colleagues are doing : the “extra interventions” which have spread like a plague through the education system, and the pointlessly onerous marking practices which have become firmly embedded in schools, like some hideous Japanese Multi-coloured-Pens Knotweed.
So when I entered Twitter and saw the discussion surrounding Russell Hobby’s suggestion that teachers accept far fewer holidays in return for guaranteed contracted hours, I thought I’d put some meandering thoughts down, because the issue of workload stopping play was very much on my mind.
You see, I agree with Mr Hobby that contractual arrangements are probably the best hope of protecting teachers from unreasonable demands. However, I don’t think the sort of working-hours-based contract he suggests is one which is workable. The following reasons sum up why I don’t see his suggestion as a solution :
- Firstly, any attempt to stick to contracted working-hours limits requires the support of management. I’m sure there are school managers out there who would be going round shooing people out of classrooms, and holding serious SLT meetings looking at ways of cutting workload to ensure contracted hours weren’t breached. Ha ha ha ha haaaa ! Sorry. Remember how well the Workload Agreement worked ? Or the unions’ “work-to-rule” policies ? Or even the “rarely cover” agreement ? Oh, that’s right, they didn’t! For example, my school, which is generally pretty benign compared to most, adopted a “rarely cover” stance in which no teacher would cover a lesson where absence was forewarned, but we accepted a deal whereby we’d cover for colleagues who were unexpectedly absent on the day. I was musing on what a good policy this was the other day, as I covered a lesson for a colleague out on a training course which had been booked some months ago. It’s not that managers are evil. They just have their own pressures, particularly financial, and in the face of such pressures, agreements like that – even contractual ones – are worth not very much.
- Secondly, it can’t work unless you reduce contact time. What is the work teachers do at home ? (1) lesson planning; (2) marking; (3) admin. Of these, marking is by far the biggest burden. Yet all of those three are generated by classes. If I have 25 lessons in a week, and each generates an average of an hour of work at home, then teaching for 47 weeks a year instead of 39 just means that I’ll be doing those extra 25 hours a week in each of 47 weeks, rather than in each of 39 weeks. The only way that writing a contract for 9-5 would thus work is if (a) I could not teach at all in any of the new extra weeks, so that I can transfer my after-hours work to in-hours work, and (b) it was possible to save up all that marking, prep and admin for those new extra weeks. Which is clearly not possible. So unless you reduce my taught lessons in each week then I can’t stop doing the extra hours in each week.
- Thirdly, it won’t work because even if you reduce contact time, the workload isn’t flat. It has peaks and troughs. This week, for example, I begin the Y13 A-Level coursework slog. That means I’m about to receive forty 2000-word essays. Each one takes me about thirty minutes to seriously consider and forty minutes to comment on. That’s twenty to twenty-six hours of marking right there. Half a full working week, on top of my actual working week. Likewise, as the exam season comes closer, I’ll be setting and marking more frequent past papers and essays for Y11 and Y12. A single GCSE past paper question takes me about 10 minutes to mark, and 15 minutes if I’m commenting too. An AS essay takes me 20 minutes to mark, and 25 minutes if I’m commenting. Yet I won’t do that every week. The first week of September has almost no marking, for example. A 9-5 contract simply can’t deal with those peaks and troughs.
So is there no hope? Well, actually, there is hope if we’re creative. I mischievously tweeted in reply to a question by Laura McInerney that the best way to solve the workload problem would be for self-employed teachers to charge schools for billable hours. That would be the only way in which you would give school managers a genuine incentive to reduce workload. It sounds a bit bizarre. A bit non-teachery. A bit lawyery, in fact. Yet it’s actually a good way of protecting teachers from workload overload.
Think for a moment about what I wrote above regarding the timing required for marking. I know how long it takes me to mark different types of work, from Year 7 Doom Paintings, to A-Level Coursework essays. Most teachers do. I’m sure that it would be an entirely feasible project to establish how long a teacher should reasonably take to mark a given type of work (after all, exam boards do essentially just this when setting rates for markers). Yet we don’t actually use this knowledge at all. When marking policies are set by schools, they take no account at all of how many minutes it takes a teacher to mark books, or how many books a teacher is expected to mark. Most policies are getting increasingly prescriptive, simply demanding that all teachers mark all books at least X times in Y period, irrespective of such realities as : what sort of marking it is, how many students a teacher has, how many hours there are in a day etc. In other words, it completely ignores the actual input required to produce the demanded output. That, by the way, in a nutshell, is where the whole of education policy has gone wrong when it comes to workload, but let’s get back to this specific idea.
At the moment, teachers are effectively told in September: “This is your salary. During the year, we will impose ever more unreasonable workload requirements upon you. These may include lunchtime duties, after-school clubs, changes to marking expectations, extra cover lessons, and a variety of other duties which we haven’t thought of yet because we’ve don’t have our annual panic about What Ofsted Wants until the school down the road gets inspected in October”. This has been going on for years now. In the last five years, most teachers have seen significant increases in workload resulting from new data requirements, greater managerialist interventions, and – above all – increased marking demands. We’ve been like lobsters, gradually getting boiled without realising it, until suddenly, we notice it’s a bit too hot to, well, survive. Like me.
Mr Hobby has floated a different idea, but unfortunately that isn’t workable either. Even if you could find an Education Minister willing to reduce teacher contact time to such a level that it could allow teachers to do their current homework load within contracted hours, you’d then need to find a Treasury Minister willing to increase the schools budget by the same proportion that you’re reducing contact time, because the ONLY way of reducing contact time if you’re not going to reduce children’s time in school, is to employ more teachers. So we have shrinking budgets, a recruitment and retention crisis (that’s me!), and Mr Hobby has proposed a change which would see a need for many more teachers and a hugely increased budget. Good luck with that.
So what we need is a system in which schools regulate themselves. We need to give them an incentive to ensure that workload remains reasonable. And here, my friends, I refer you to billable hours, or at least a similar concept.
Now go back to your September start. “We’re paying you for 2,000 hours. 1,500 of those hours are contracted classroom delivery times. The other 500 will be taken up in admin, marking and planning. You’ll work out with your HoD how best to allocate those hours. Anything we require of you above and beyond those hours, will be paid at X rate, and will be entirely voluntary”.
That puts the teacher in a remarkably powerful position. He or she will know how many students they have, and will know how long it takes to mark a piece of work (unions can helpfully publish national expected requirements). Then an agreement with the HoD which will effectively set, at the beginning of the year, how many pieces of work you’re going to mark for each class, how many data inputs you’ll have, how many “extra” interventions you’ll be expected to do. Working that out is just simple arithmetic. Of course, the maths department might have to help the PE department out a bit with their billing, but that’s a surmountable problem. This puts a cap on workload, and it also sets a negotiating baseline. If someone on SLT comes up with a wacky idea for what they want to do halfway through the year, then fine, but they can’t simply approach teachers and demand that it is done. They’d have to negotiate the abandonment of a piece of marking here, in order to have their wacky new programme there.
Now I know that there are already plenty of people worried about a loss of flexibility. But here’s the thing : under such a system, you still have flexibility as a teacher. If you want to put a bit extra in, then you absolutely can, because nobody will stop you. This would be the equivalent of what lawyers would call “pro bono” work. But it removes the disastrous “flexibility” we currently have, which is entirely a one-sided management flexibility to impose more and more additional burdens on teachers without any additional time or recompense. Frankly, that’s a flexibility I can do without.
Like I said, my school is generally a happy, benignly managed and caring institution. But I have fruitlessly suggested on a number of occasions over the years that we adopt a principle we operated in my old civil service days : if you add a new task or expectation, then you must either add new resources to complete that task, or remove an equivalent existing task from the people expected to complete the new task. This principle has never been adopted. I’m guessing that you won’t find that principle in many schools either. Partly this is because the Cult of the Leader has come to be defined as “Leading is telling people to do lots of stuff, and then checking that they’re doing it”. Partly this is because OFSTED and DFE don’t practise such enlightened management when they impose new requirements and expectations on schools, so school managers find it very difficult to do anything other than pass on increased burdens to staff. Yet this is a short-sighted approach, because the result is what we are now seeing around us today : a recruitment and retention crisis, as teachers, like me, vote with their feet and walk away from a job which they’re effective at, which they enjoy, but which has become incompatible with a healthy existence.
The billable hours model would also vastly strengthen SLTs’ hands in dealings with DFE and OFSTED, because they would be able to give a rapid estimate of how many extra hours each initiative would require, and thus a cost which the Government would have to stump up if it wants schools to do something. Likewise, OFSTED would no longer be able to criticise schools for not dancing to every tune in their repertoire, because schools could reasonably point to their budget, and explain where every penny went, while raising an eyebrow at Ofsted and asking them how they think their unticked box should be paid for. Everyone’s a winner! Except Ofsted and DFE. So, like I said, everyone’s a winner !
In a different blog – if I ever find the time and energy to blog again – I want to return to the principle of diminishing marginal returns, and how schools could benefit from the application of some pretty basic economic principles (such as : employee time is not infinite) to bring about some reality to the current trend for “extra interventionism”. However, I’ll leave this here now, and get back to staring at the brochure of the lovely house I’m going to live in, where I’m going to sit in my garden, looking at the sea, and recalling amusing anecdotes from the teaching career I ended two decades before I had to, because nobody in the system had the wit or ability to turn the temperature down under the boiling pot.