The Hidden Workload Scandal


Last night I wrote a tweet. Something had been bothering me for days. Behind the headline figure of “30% of new entrants to teaching leave within five years” was an odd statistic. The figure had largely been unchanged since 1996 – in all that time, we’ve lost around 30% of new teachers every year. Maybe they had decided it wasn’t for them. Maybe they’d moved into the private sector or abroad. Whatever the reason, some were very quick to point out that things mustn’t have got worse for teachers in recent years at all. A couple even managed to turn it around as a triumph for Michael Gove. I know! Eye roll. Those people were mostly not teachers. I know that things got worse. I know because I left. My heartbroken blog post, written on the day I resigned, remains to this day the most widely read of all those I have written and many wrote to me to say they felt the same.

Of course, I wouldn’t appear in those attrition figures – I’d been teaching for over 20 years. I wonder what the attrition rate for more experienced teachers is and how that has changed over time? But even more than that, I wonder, how many have taken the decision to move to part time hours in order to cope with a workload that is simply unbearable? That was the tweet I wrote last night :-

How many of you went part time to cope with work/life balance or know someone who has? And is this an invisible factor in teacher shortages?
8:03 PM – 27 Oct 2016 · 

The response has been extraordinary – hundreds of responses from people saying that they had. But also from teachers explaining that in their departments, over 50% of the teaching staff are part time and from heads saying that in order to keep staff they have had to support part time requests for work – one saying that most of the classes in her primary school were job shared and that she was happy to do it to keep good staff. This might not be a problem, were it not for two things.

Firstly, most of those saying they had moved to part time hours, were working on their days off. The part time hours meant that they could work full time but have at least one day off at the weekend. One common factor for many was that becoming a parent had created the breaking point. They saw full time teaching as completely incompatible with family life – both men and women. Most of those who had not made the decision to move to part time work said they wished they could, but they couldn’t afford to do it.

Secondly, it is harder to find two teachers than one when a full time post becomes available. Part time workers create a headache for recruiters. It’s one of the reasons that many requests are denied. Not only is recruitment harder, but many senior managers worry about the impact of split class teaching on the pupils. It can work well, but it can also be fragmented and damaging. In an ideal world, a full time post would be manageable enough that people wanted to do it and earn a full time wage.

When I went into teaching, I had a six month old baby and was a single parent. It wasn’t easy, but the roles of Mum and teacher were compatible. I’d mark when he slept. My weekends were my own. I don’t remember having to work weekends at all in the first eight years, unless I had rehearsals or was on a trip. I did lots of those, because I had the energy to do them. What changed? Planning expectations, marking expectations, extra meetings, work scrutiny,  damned spreadsheets and data reporting, project this and project that. “What Ofsted want” initiatives that came and went. All underpinned by fear. The teaching didn’t change. But proving that the teaching worked, even beyond the scope of results, became all consuming. Teaching became a small fragment of the job. The best bit, but often the bit that paid the price in the attempt to make everything look alright. The irony!

In the year before I left teaching, I too, dropped to 0.8 in an attempt to cope. Before I did this, I was regularly working 70 hours per week. I left for work before my children woke up. I got home after the youngest had gone to bed. My husband, also a teacher, had already gone down to 0.8. It allowed him to be the primary care giver, but he was still cracking from the strain of what was really full time work with an absent wife. So I dropped my hours too. My 70 hour week dropped to around 55 hours – losing classes means losing marking and planning. But those still taught effectively meant I had to work full time, just be paid for part time work. Of those teachers who responded to my tweet, most have dropped one or two days and yet were still working full time equivalent hours. In what other line of work would this be acceptable?

To me, it shows that in order to plan and assess effectively, teachers need equivalence between contact and preparation time. When I worked for a few years in ITT at MMU after the birth of my third child, every hour I taught was matched with an hour of planning and marking time. It meant that almost all my work could be completed within a 40-45 hour working week. Sure, some of those hours took place in the evenings or at weekends. Sure, the holidays were shorter – 8 rather than 13 weeks per year. But there was definitely a sense that the job was doable. There was time to think, to breathe, to use the loo. Of course, doing this in schools would have a massive impact on public finances – a direct 50/50 split would be prohibitively expensive (though Shanghai manage it). But the current PPA allowance for teachers is clearly so woefully inadequate that people simply can’t cope. They move to reduce their contact time in any way they can. Some go for promotion, working their way through the double hell of managing a department, to the pastures of senior management. Now don’t get me wrong. Senior managers work hard. They have long hours too and lots of stress. But if they need the toilet during the day, they can go. Some I know work from home when they have big projects like timetabling on, so they can do it without being distracted. Most would admit, that whatever the workload, it’s not as relentlessly inflexible as having classes. One said to me “I never really wanted to be an Assistant Head, but the marking was breaking me. I work really hard now. But I don’t feel like I’m drowning in the same way. And I get paid enough to be able to afford stress relief – more holidays and mini breaks.” Those who don’t want the promotion, or who can’t give the extra pound of flesh by serving middle management time, well they seem to go part time.

The teachers who contacted me spoke of having “scuppered” their career paths. They spoke of desperation. It’s a desperation I vividly remember. But we should not have to be part time in order to be able to fulfil a full time expectation. All teachers work unpaid days. Saturdays, Sundays, so-called holidays, countless evenings and so on. We all know it. We tut in sympathy and then shrug. It’s time we had a proper set of guidelines on how many hours is reasonable to expect and work back from there. Even if it sounds like a lot – 50 hours sounds like a lot, but for most teachers, it’s the bare minimum. A teacher working 50 hours a week term time is banking 10 hours a week over what would usually be considered full time work. 390 hours per year. It means that seven weeks of their 13 week holiday period is actually time off in lieu, leaving them with the average holiday entitlement of an ordinary full time employee. Let’s start to make these figure explicit. Let’s ask our unions and politicians to make it clear that 50 hours per week is the absolute maximum we expect of our teachers. No more. And then work out where our gaps are. Do we need to reduce contact time and employ more teachers to do this? Or change our data gathering, marking and meeting policies? Do we need to offer extra payments for trips or overtime beyond those hours? How much would it cost? Could we put a proposal forward with costings to government, saying “if you want to tackle workload AND teacher shortages, be clear about what full time work entails. Limit hours. Fund it.” The costs of training and losing staff are huge. The costs of recruiting are huge. The mental health costs to staff are huge. It’s time for us to stop. Not to drop hours and struggle because we can’t cope. It’s time to work to rule and I know this is hard. But if that doesn’t happen, things won’t change. They really won’t. Because the bottom line is that as long as you’re willing to bend and sacrifice yourselves and families, they’ll let you do it. Until you snap. Then they’ll get someone else to do it. Enough.

32 thoughts on “The Hidden Workload Scandal

  1. And here lies the rub: ” … every hour I taught was matched with an hour of planning and marking time.”

    I will keep in saying it until I go part-time or quit myself. If the DfE do not change teacher contact ration – accountability and data or not – teachers will never have enough time to complete the work they need to do during the working day. Everything else is just hot air.

    1. I think you’re right Ross. And we need to stop harping on about Shanghai without considering that teachers there teach only two lessons per day and all the rest of their time is spent on planning, assessing and one to one intervention.

    2. In my authority we have guaranteed non contact of 20% for secondary teachers and the secondary heads want to cut it. They see it as a perk delivered by an over-powerful NUT. It’s nowhere near enough. As a union rep I spend hours helping teachers, particularly female teachers, go part time after they have children. I warn them they will do a full time job and be paid less and, as a feminist in a majority female profession, I find it galling. If there’s one job that should fit with parenting, it’s teaching. I really believe that the only way to reduce workload is through the union. The DfE aren’t going to put it in the STPCD and academies could say no even if they did. School union groups need to sit down with the SLT and cut workload. If things don’t improve, they have to ballot and strike.

  2. Well said. These are all plain truths attested to by so many people’s experiences, including my own, and fully understood by government – and yet the public don’t really understand this, (and probably wouldn’t much care if they did.) Of course, the situation is more complicated than you describe in two senses: (1) The exhaustion factor. Teaching classes for a whole day is completely exhausting. I can sit at my desk from 7 in the morning till 11 at night answering emails, doing desk work, etc, with barely a break, and not feel any of the physical exhaustion that one feels after 6 hours of teaching large demanding classes of teenagers. Working 70 hours is an imposition on anyone, but working 40 hours on top of 30 hours of classroom teaching is impossible. (2) The inequity factor. Teachers of some subjects work a lot harder than others. (I’ll leave that can of worms there…)

  3. In the 1990’s I taught full time with 2 young kids & it was perfectly doable. I was a class teacher & middle management. The reason I stopped when my 3rd child arrived was the cost of childcare meant I was worse off.

    Once my oldest started school I returned to teaching but it grew harder & harder to get the job done well within reasonable hours.

    I then followed the well worn path of reducing hours so I could complete job on my days off but still found myself working week ends

    The sole motivation for many teachers applying for leadership roles is to reduce teaching workload. This is an absolute scandal.

    I’ve been teaching since 1990 but I can no longer do it full time. My kids are now grown up so life is easier but I have fundamental disagreements over so many aspects of school policy.

    I’m lucky that I can opt out & simply teach music at primary school.

    Until teachers start speaking truth to power it will never change. We let down our colleagues & the kids every single time we “go along” with yet another stupid idea for a quiet life.

    Great blog Debra. It will resonate with many.

    1. Thank you Jackie. I think once you leave you start to fully realise what an insane system you’ve been enduring. There is a kind of Stockholm syndrome in place fuelled by genuine desire to do the right thing by the children and this guilt is milked by politicians and managers. It’s not going to be easy for any altruistic human being to put their foot down. But it must happen if things are to change.

  4. Unless the law has ben changed, there was a legal precedent set by a case brought by Wandsworth against the NASUWT during the Thatcher years where the court decided that industrial action against workload by the union was legal, but the pressure continued and I retired early. The whole thing is a mess that will take years to correct. Governing bodies, Ofsted, Free Schools, Academies all fragment the service, cover up the underfunding and make it harder to act in one go. Salary structure is undermined to a point where it’s hard to see if an effective structure exists, and the lack of job security doesn’t help. The last straw for me was having had more than average success with methods developed by; observing excellent practise, reading good educational studies and research that talked about real children, and analysing where i wasn’t doing so well; I was now expected to stop encouraging my staff down the same road and get them to head in the opposite direction. Illness and early retirement followed.

  5. I left last year after 30 years. The best thing I ever did.

    The job has become unsustainable and unhealthy. I told my Head I wasn’t prepared to work any more hours. Got threatened with misconduct rather than sympathy. This cannot go on.

    I now work out of education altogether and get told by my boss that I work too hard (despite doing half the hours I did in teaching)

    I think that teachers need to get militant and refuse to do all this pointless evidence gathering and paperwork. I am convinced that teachers would be do a much better job if they weren’t looking over their shoulders all the time, filling in data and becoming administrators.

    My wife is 0.8 but works every Friday (her day off) to fulfil all the tasks. This half term she has worked four days and only today (Friday) has given herself a day off. It is wrong. I’ve told her that she needs to refuse to do any more but she fears she will be disciplined despite getting excellent observations and greats SAT results.

    The whole situation stinks.

  6. 2 hrs non contact in a week at Primary level. Every other period of the working day is face time. In between that breaks and lunchtime are increasingly used up with 1 to 1 catch up for slower learners. I have worked as teacher and in the private sector, as a sales rep, and I do know what the so called real world is like. Few jobs compare to being responsible for 30 children’s complex academic and emotional needs.

    I suspect that is the factor that is forgotten or misunderstood by those outside the profession, only front line professionals like doctors, nurses and police etc have a comparable job.

  7. You are spot on Debra. I was talking with a friend earlier this week who teaches 3 days a week and who basically works full time to facilitate it. When I ask the teachers I meet what the main cause of the unsustainable workload is, the answer is the same every time – proving progress with evidence, and submitting data to SLT. The idea that we can ‘judge progress’ by using data and evidence is sounding the death knell to sensible workload. The sad thing is that I’m not sure whether all this data and evidencing really adds anything extra to what teachers already ‘know’ about their children.

    1. Yes, I think that was my experience too Sue – the extra hours weren’t coming from the teaching itself but from more checks and accountability. I do think though, that if we are to accept that proper planning and feedback have impact, then time needs to be properly allocated to them. The problem with the current “directed time” calculations is that none of this is taken into account so the bulk of the workload lies under the surface of the water. I once spent 15 hours in one week trying to get a data spreadsheet to “look right” – none of those hours counted in staffing calculations etc. So much unaccounted for.

  8. This all rings true for me. Both my parents were teachers and had careers that spanned roughly 1970-2010. In the first three quarters of their careers they were pretty much just left to get on with things. They planned as much as they wanted to plan and were trusted. Neither of them worked evenings (both were home by 5pm most nights) and holidays were holidays. Don’t get me wrong, they had colleagues at the time who always seemed to be swamped with work and stressed but it was less common. They happened to teach subjects/year groups where there wasn’t regular marking to be done.
    I compare it to my friends and close family who are teachers now and it seems a different world. We went to visit one teacher couple and were left alone all day on the Sunday as they both needed to do lesson plans and marking for the week ahead. Other teacher friends won’t even consider midweek evenings out or term time get-togethers.
    If I were cynical, and I am, I’d say a lot of this movement towards a “knowledge rich” and “text book based” teaching will be sold as a way of removing workload from teachers. Why the need for planning if you use our pre-packaged lessons? Why the need for marking if you use our multiple choice marking system? Why the need for qualified teachers with our fool proof knowledge delivery system?
    You solve workload issues with trust.

  9. Nail on head Debra. Although marking is the current object of ire, I just think that we can’t get away from the fact that there is too much for one person to do. Teaching is a busy job – we accept that, and the holidays go a long way to paying that back – but the ever-growing requirements of ever-growing evidence and data are the elephant in the room.

    Plan-teach-mark. That is doable. Meetings, breaktimes for 1-1 catch-up (don’t the kids need a break too??) and filling in data (and, as you say, twiddling with it so it looks right) are not.

    Call me old fashioned, but isn’t the evidence the child?

  10. Like your post but be careful generalising senior leaders. I’m a senior leader with a full class responsibility so not the ‘time to breath or go to the toilet’ as you state!

  11. I dropped back to classroom teaching following two years as an AHT. I was working in a really toxic environment and couldn’t be the outstanding classroom teacher 2 days a week with no ppa at all…the other three days were full of meetings and doing the other parts of my role. I was also expected to drop my lessons to deal with behaviour issues in other parts of the school (thank goodness for amazing TAs). I’m still working in SEND, but with a class of 10 the workload is way less than when I was in mainstream. Having said that, I still work about 20 hours a week ‘extra’ as standard, and have two days planning ahead of me….Regardless of the level you are working at, there’s never enough time in the week to fit everything in. Something has to give, but I’m not sure what I would drop first…

  12. This is absolutely me. It took my eldest son to have a complete breakdown and my youngest to be in trouble with the police for me to realise the damage my long hours had done to my family. At the same time my father was ill and I was lucky that my Head accepted my request (made at the beginning of July) to go part time, dropping Fridays, the following September. When my father became more ill and I was spending more and more time caring for him I was told “only do what you have to do, plan, teach, mark” which I did. 3 weeks after my father died I was asked how the new assessment system for Computing was coming along! I goldfished for a bit and muttered something about having bought a book. As for my boys, the youngest in far more on track due to me being more available to chase every tiny thing up, and my oldest is now much better, but is still not in any gainful employment or education. I never want to work full time again, but definitely work full time hours now. This is partly because I plan for all of the week, and take on all the extra medium term planning and other paperwork for SEN etc. I also only get 80% of my Computing TLR but definitely haven’t dropped any of this job! If I retire when the government would like me to I have 20 years left. Can’t see it myself!

  13. I’ve just finished my half term, of which I’ve probably had one full day to myself. I’ve marked, graded (and that’s a joke on its own) and fed back with What Went Well and Even Better If 175 books. I’ve planned for all bar 3 of my lessons for next week’s return, and I’m now ready for a week off! I still have many things to do before I can say I’m up to date. I buy many of my department’s resources out of my own pocket, and I answer emails from my students all hours of the evening. They need my help, I’m their teacher. When my granddaughter comes to stay for the weekend, I panic; how will I get my planning and outstanding data completed? So I have the guilt of wanting to see her weighed against the panic if getting behind with marking. I’m in school every morning from around 7:20, rarely get a full 35 minute lunch hour and must have a huge capacity bladder because I rarely get to the loo as I’m always either dealing with a child in tears, in trouble, in detention (because mummy doesn’t want her precious doing after school detentions; do they think we employ people to sit with their darlings?). I honestly don’t know how teachers with young families cope. It’s an old saying, but they are the best: Every Child Matters. Except your own…

  14. Brilliant post…
    Such a reflection of my own experiences and the ultimate crushing effects of not being available for ailing parents and struggling but grown up offspring because of the relentless workload in the latter years of my 25 yr career.
    I’m now a student again ! BA in Floral
    Design and professional floristry – final year having gain a Foundation degree with distinction last year, outstanding student of the year award within the uni college, and industry nomination for best newcomer. Loving it and loving being a granny too 😱😉.
    The blessing that come in disguise … Having got out I could be a real support for my parents during my dad’s last months and be present to support my daughter when she became a mum. None of that would’ve been possible on the 70 hr week I had gotten into having to do just to keep afloat at work.
    It’s a pitiful state of affairs and now my big concern is what mental/ emotional state will the teachers of my grandchild be in, in 3 years time ….
    Other than that … Hope all is well with you.
    Warmest regards

    Sent from Outlook Mobile

    1. That used to be my escape dream Fiona – floristry! So happy you’ve made it a reality and so sorry to hear about your parents. What an up and down time you’ve had. Time for you now. Good luck x

  15. Oh gosh this struck home. I’m part time (0.62) in Primary and went part time precisely because I couldn’t do it all working full time. I initially dropped to 0.8 which gave me a day back at the weekend because I spent my whole ‘day off’ working. I now work mornings only so I’m home for my children after school which I love but means I work every evening instead, as well as that day at the weekend. This half term has seen a full day on marking and assessment, a full day on planning and a full day on subject leadership and everything else. I can’t go out mid week and can’t plan for full weekends term time. I wonder what I will do when my children leave school but I trained when I was 33 and I love being with the children. What else could I do? And I’m thinking about going back full time as I still seem to have the full work load any way as I’m not in a job share…

  16. Well said Debra, and so very true. Our system in Australia may be a little different but the issues are the same. The overwhelming amount of paperwork that has nothing to do with actual teaching. As a specialist English teacher I found the marking a constant stress but it was part of the package so you coped. I was firm in my resolve to work part-time as I was raising twin sons alone and I could not have managed a full time allocation. Yet like everyone else here I routinely spent my weekends, holidays and days off catching up with everything.
    A few times I would go full-time to take on an Acting HOD position, however this part-time status certainly worked against me when I was ready to go full time again or when I applied for promotion.

    I have worked in 2 States her in Oz and also overseas and the systemic accountability is worse at home. What I find most annoying is that teachers salaries her sound really good when the hourly rate is given, but a full time teacher is paid for only 25 hours a week. How they get away with that has always bemused me given that teachers are ALWAYS at school for more than 5 hours a day.

    The other problem for teachers here, particularly women who have gone part time, is that their superannuation ends up being far lower and therefore when they can no longer manage the load or can’t gain employment because of age, they do not have a solid financial base.

    I don’t know the answer to this, but the status quo is unsustainable.

    1. I’m just adding more of the same really. I came into teaching late after a career in PR. I love teaching: I’ve always been lucky enough to enjoy my work, but teaching really is something special. I became HoD quite quickly, but realised that I was the first to leave my youngest son at breakfast club in the morning and the last to collect him at night, all the while giving more time and attention to other people’s children than I did to my own. The final straw came when rain one Sunday morning meant that rugby training was cancelled for all my sons; rather than rejoicing at the chance to spend time with my family, I just panicked about how I would get my weekend’s work done. I gave up the TLR and reduced my hours to 0.6, working a full week but not at the weekends. I have subsequently gone over to the dark side and joined a private school. It’s still hard work, but there is a recognition that teachers need a sensible amount of time to plan and prepare, and there are far fewer pointless meetings. So what can I add to this thread? There is something very wrong with the way teachers are treated right across the board in the UK. It’s not just the unreasonable expectations, it’s also partly the way teachers are viewed throughout society, from the government downwards. A small example: I’ve just come back from a half term break in Spain, where teachers get in free to things like art galleries, castles and other places of interest. It suggests a respect for the profession that simply doesn’t exist in the same way here in Britain. I wish I were still teaching in a state school, I really do, but I can’t see it happening again before I retire unless there is real change, so I’m one of the 30% I suppose.

  17. After 14 years of teaching and working full time (60+ hours a week) I resigned and started my own consultancy business allowing me to tutor and mentor for an online ITT college.
    I went back part time for a year (2 and a half days a week) but was still working full time hours of 50+ to make sure everything was planned , marked and up to date…
    Was then asked to go full time … Managed it for 3 months and then became non teaching SENCo 3 days a week. Still working 45 + hours by this time and also still working as mentor to ITT students…
    Now working 0.9 , teaching SEND pupils in the morning and admin in the afternoons.
    I love it and wouldn’t give it up but it has taken a lot to get to this point where I can have work /life balance but still give my all to the children in school as well as my own 2 girls,
    This is only achievable now due to the fantastic team I work with , not sure it would be possible without them !

  18. I have gone down to 0.8 this half term after going off with work related stress and depression. I have a midweek day off and I do all my planning in this time so that during my PPA I don’t get too stressed being disturbed to chase up x, y or z. I still work more hours than my husband (who’s just got a promotion!) in a ‘normal’ job.
    I find that PPA is only effective if you are un-contactable during that time–especially in a secondary school. This week I had a parent who wanted a phone call. I missed them Monday night, I was off ill for two days and by the time I got back to school on the Thursday (bearing in mind, one of those days I was ill is actually my day off!) I had two emails demanding phone calls waiting in my inbox and a letter from the parent waiting on my desk…. three contacts within less than 72 hours.
    Parent’s expectations are now at two extremes. They either don’t care, or they want to micromanage you. During the phone call (which lasted half an hour!) to the demanding parents, everything about me and my teaching was questioned, from class room management, to a full list of homework given over the year, and the final nail in the coffin was ‘And part-time is usual for you?’
    When I graduated I left with a 1 teaching assessment and a distinction in my PGCE. The schools I was placed at stated I was one of the hardest working ITT’s they’d met. I had such a desire and passion to teach, but it’s all gone now. Now I’m merely trying to get through the day and I can’t wait until I’m in a better position to quit.
    When I first entertained these thoughts I felt guilty, a failure, as if I was letting the children down and I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher. But after going through CBT I have come to recognise that I’m not the failure. The system is. The government is. The profession is. We’re not standing up to the government and those that are in ‘charge’ the way we should be. It’s frustrating. We’re trapped by our own need to earn money to pay debts (over the top mortgages, car payments etc) that we’re too frightened to rock the boat.
    I’m too young to remember the miners strike, but when those guys did it, they did it properly. And people supported them. Unfortunately, we’ve let the government destroy us in the eyes of the general public into lazy, over paid, scroungers and we’d never get that support.
    Teachers need to start acting with their feet and LEAVING the profession in droves. Until parents realise that there is a major problem with your whole department having no one more experienced than five/six years in the field, that there is 50%+ NQT employment in the school and little development across schools.
    They’d welcome us back with open arms and understand that we’re a precious resource once their kids are being taught in classes of 50, with someone who’s just left university in a department being run by someone with less than 5 years experience (all in the same school) that’s inherited the job from someone who’s been working less than 8 who’s gone up to be an assistant head… and that the head has never worked in teaching, but is a business manager and only know’s what a lesson looks like from those he took when he was in school himself.

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