Teacher workload – a concern north and south of the border

Yesterday, Nick Clegg gave a speech to public sector workers. His specific focus was on teacher workload. Everyone thinks that teachers work short hours and have long holidays. Yet everyone who has a child actually at school will know how much effort goes in to preparing lessons. And everyone who knows a teacher knows that they spend a lot of their supposed “off-duty” time thinking of interesting lessons or, more likely these days, filling in interminable paperwork. We know that children need to be kept safe and their progress checked, but I get the feeling that the bureaucracy is overbearing and unnecessary. Let’s just give you a small example from my own experience. Every time my child sets foot outside the school we have to fill in a consent form. It’s A4. It has all sorts of medical info on it. It even asks how far they can swim unaided, a skill which is unlikely to be needed when representing the school in a maths competition or reading stories to 6 year olds in the local primary school. We can be filling in one of these forms twice a month. If it’s a mild inconvenience for us as parents, what’s it like for teachers who have maybe 30 of them to collect for each class? Why can parents not fill in a standing consent with all the info which covers the whole year?

That’s the sort of example I suspect Nick will be getting from the survey consultation he launched yesterday. Teachers are invited to complete this survey which asks for their views about the “unproductive” tasks they are required to complete.  He said:

We’re talking about hours spent struggling to stay on top of piles of incident reports, over-detailed lesson plan templates, health and safety forms, departmental updates, training requests and so on that threaten to engulf them every week. Not to mention the reams of additional evidence which teachers pull together because of a long-held belief that Ofsted inspectors want to see everything written down.

Some of this work is unavoidable. Every school needs to ensure the safety of its pupils and staff and maintain the highest standards possible. But should you really have to fill in multiple risk assessment forms for every school trip when just one form would be better

Ask any teacher and they’ll give you at least two more examples like that: whether it’s having to highlight their lesson plans in five different colours or inputting every pupil’s marks into countless different spreadsheets in countless different ways at regular points in the year.

I believe it’s time for us to stop that runaway train of bureaucracy in its tracks, giving our teachers more time to do what they do best: creating and planning the best possible lessons and experiences for our children. In Government, we’ve already done this for businesses: freeing up money and resources for millions of companies.

It’s to be hoped this initiative will prevent clearly good teachers like Lucy Fay leaving the profession. It’s not just an issue in England, though. Teacher workload is a major focus for the Educational Institute for Scotland, the main teaching union north of the border, at the moment and that’s under a system where teachers are supposed to have more built-in time for lesson preparation.

In his speech yesterday, Nick paid tribute to public sector workers:

Your contribution is remarkable given that – over the last four years, in the wake of the biggest financial crisis in living memory, with our public services having to absorb significant spending cuts – every public service has had to do more with less.

In Coalition, we’ve had to take difficult decisions on pay and pensions as we deal with the deficit – because there is nothing remotely fair or public spirited about saddling our children and grandchildren with those debts.

You’ve had to make personal sacrifices – to keep more of your colleagues in work and protect essential services for those who need them most.

As a result of those decisions, those sacrifices, our country is back on track. Our country is growing again. More people are in work than ever before. And while a lot of families are still feeling the squeeze, we are finally through the fire. Up and down the country, people can once again look to their future with hope.

I have tos ay, though, that I was pretty upset last week when the NHS workers walked out for four hours. Their demand, for a sub-inflation 1% pay rise didn’t seem that unreasonable. Why can’t the lowest paid workers get that at least? When I mentioned this on Facebook last week, people suggested it might be better to give a sum of money rather than a percentage. That sum would mean much more to the lower paid but the unions aren’t interested, perhaps because they tend to do more for the higher paid members. The low paid public sector workers will certainly have benefitted from the raising of the tax threshold but I think more needs to be done to tackle in-work poverty.  A friend of mine talked about some NHS workers being referred to food banks because they couldn’t make ends meet. That should not be happening.

A lot of what Nick said yesterday was about making the job easier, though. Cutting the bureaucracy, letting teachers teach. He also talked about making sure emergency workers had the support in place to keep them mentally well:

In the emergency services, you’re given protective gloves, masks, stab vests, fire fighting kit etc, as well procedures to follow to keep you physically safe. I want to give you that same high standard of protection for your mental health.

All in all, it was a useful speech and it does sound like he does get a lot of the challenges facing workers in the public sector. Whether they will be in a mood to listen to him is yet to be seen.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • Whilst I’m not naive enough to believe the misconception that teachers only work 9-3 and have 25 weeks holiday a year I don’t think teachers can be singled out as martyrs to their course. As a private sector middle manager I regularly go over and above, I get bogged down in unnecessary paperwork and end up giving a chunk of my own time for free. I’m sure most workers in Britain will similarly agree. Further more the above ascertains anyone with children will appreciate how hard teachers work. Again from my own experience at my children’s schools I see weak teaching, management and shocking organisation with much needed reform. Teaching is an important profession but is far from perfect and all the problems are not down to Gove as teachers would have you believe!

  • Helen Tedcastle 23rd Oct '14 - 7:35pm

    Paul Howden
    ‘ I don’t think teachers can be singled out as martyrs to their course. As a private sector middle manager I regularly go over and above, I get bogged down in unnecessary paperwork and end up giving a chunk of my own time for free.’

    I think Nick is singling out teachers as you put it to try to win back votes lost from a profession battered and bruised by the massive structural and curriculum changes pushed through at breakneck speed by Gove (with Lib Dem consent) while views of teachers and academics were ignored.

    We have alienated up to 20% of our support among teachers since the 28% of 2010.

    Of course everyone you speak to will claim they regularly ‘go over and above’ the call of duty at work and get little thanks. However, if your professionalism is regularly questioned by the media and negative attitudes of your profession are actively pushed by politicians – remember Gove’s ‘enemies of promise’ jibe – it really sticks in the craw.

    Of course you will always find someone in a large workforce such as teaching who is not up to it. However, why should this minority blur the hard work and commitment of others – the majority? It’s the hard-working ones who feel the most bruised by this Government’s relentless stick-beating over four years.

    As for Nick’s speech trying to suggest ways to help teachers – too little too late.

  • Rebecca Hanson 24th Oct '14 - 9:15am

    Comments welcome on my contribution to the public policy debate – here at 2:10.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04lbtxw/liberal-democrats-conference-2014-05102014

    Rebecca

  • Peter Watson 24th Oct '14 - 9:21am

    @Helen Tedcastle “I think Nick is singling out teachers as you put it to try to win back votes lost from a profession battered and bruised by the massive structural and curriculum changes pushed through at breakneck speed by Gove (with Lib Dem consent) while views of teachers and academics were ignored.”
    It also appears that Clegg is doing so by suggesting that teachers simply want to work less hard. This seems like a clumsy approach that will attract responses like Paul’s (after all, we all think we work hard) and simply alienate teachers further.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th Oct '14 - 11:44am

    Peter Watson

    I agree. Nick’s speech will simply be read by teachers with incredulity. The idea that Nick is now going to focus on workload after the last four years of nothing but change, comes across as desperate.

    The lack of understanding comes through in the helpful link provided by Caron, highlighting the resignation of a dedicated teacher – Lucy Fay – who resigned, not because of highlighting lesson plans (the least of teachers’ concerns Nick), but because of Gove’s narrow top down target and outcome-driven focus on assessment levels in primary school. This drive has been backed by Lib Dem Ministers in the DfE, to my utter dismay. I notice Nick didn’t refer to this policy, even though that was Lucy Fay’s reason for leaving teaching.

    The drive from the Government to create an Asian-style high stakes, all or nothing exam system from primary onwards is the reason for the resignation. That teacher has some pride – and she can see what is happening.

    Some people might think that the loss of teachers like Fay is ‘natural wastage’ but she is the kind of person the profession cannot afford to lose. Sadly, in my experience, it is people like Lucy Fay who leave the education service, believing that no matter how dedicated, hard-working and effective they are, it is never enough for politicians, press and society at large – who undervalue, undermine and publicly trash their professionalism year after year.

    Politicians also need to realise that children are human beings with different gifts and talents, not empty vessels who need to be crammed with facts and sent out into the world on a production line.

    There are ways in which high standards can be sought and attained without resorting to obsessive focus on levels and ranking of attainment. After all, Finland is the top-performing education jurisdiction in Europe without this outcome-driven approach.

    Until this simple truth is understood and relearned, Nick’s desperate plea to teachers will not stem the drift away from our once education-savvy party.

  • @Caron – This is a teaching household ,34 years in the job and counting.I can assure you there’s no incredulity here,no “LD’s are looking desperate.” Just a quiet relief that at last someone has realised the sheer weight of bureaucracy means that dedicated teachers are struggling to deliver the lessons they would like to..It’s a pity other commentators on here can’t (or wont),acknowledge that this is an area where we could make a difference.Survey completed best of luck!

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th Oct '14 - 6:11pm

    @ Dean W – ‘… there’s no incredulity here,no “LD’s are looking desperate.” Just a quiet relief that at last someone has realised the sheer weight of bureaucracy means that dedicated teachers are struggling to deliver the lessons they would like to..It’s a pity other commentators on here can’t (or wont),acknowledge that this is an area where we could make a difference…’

    I seem to remember (20 years experience in teaching btw) that teacher workload is a perennial issue brought out by parties wanting votes – Labour have used it as have the Lib Dems. No doubt Nick means what he says in this speech.

    Just wish he’d done it four years ago instead of a few months before the GE and several years after Gove.

  • Helen Tedcastle 26th Oct ’14 – 6:11pm
    “……I seem to remember (20 years experience in teaching btw) that teacher workload is a perennial issue brought out by parties wanting votes – Labour have used it as have the Lib Dems. ”

    I am so glad you said this, Helen. That was my first thought when I saw the words “teacher workoad” in the title.

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