Teachers: ending the 60-hour week

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2015 - 12:14

A recent National Union of Teachers survey found that the average teacher works a 60 hour week.

The average was already, in 2013, according to official government figures, 59.3 hours in primary and 55.7 in secondary, and it is increasing.

According to the government figures, teachers do 20% of their work outside of the school day, and according to a survey by the conservative union ATL, almost half work up to 10 hours over their weekend.

Something like two out of five teachers quit the job in the first five years, and mostly because of workload. An ATL survey found that 76% of those quitting cited workload. A Durham university survey asked teachers if they were thinking of leaving. 32% said yes or maybe. Then it asked the 32% an open-ended question about why. 45% of the reasons cited were “workload” or “long hours” or “stress and exhaustion” or similar.

The quitters are mostly young teachers, who start but recoil at the workload, and over-50s who can no longer cope. The UK has the second most youthful teaching workforce among richer countries, with 20% of primary teachers under 30.

The classroom part of the job is often the least stressful, at least for experienced teachers.

But almost every school now applies a strict policy on the format and quantity of marking. This has little to do with educational requirements and everything to do with presentations for Ofsted. In some schools (luckily fewer now) every piece of written-English assessed work requires a sub-level for each of the nine assessment focuses specified under yet another reform a few years ago.

That’s an extreme example, but arbitrary marking requirements, enforced by a savage and arbitrary work scrutiny schedule, increase anxiety and stress across the board.

Very often, every piece of assessed work needs to be input to a computerised system in some form. The demands to submit this data, to analyse it in detail, and provide written reports on it, almost add up to a full time job on their own. The purpose, again, is to build a “data wall” to fend off Ofsted.

Then staff are pressurised by school and department meetings. “I can’t run a school on one hour of meetings a week!” exclaimed one senior manager of my acquaintance. (His teaching timetable was only about three hours with top set year 11). The meetings are not for democracy, but for managers to show that they are performing. Much of the meeting time is taken up with being reminded to submit various bits of data entry.

Those of us lucky enough to work in a school with an organised and active union presence can often limit meetings to one hour a week, but not everyone is so fortunate. Even when the union has got the “one hour a week” rule, management often circumvent it.

Meetings, excessive data entry, and excessive marking make up much of the workload; but a reasonable working week also calls for limits on classroom hours.

In Finland teachers spend 20 hours a week in class. Of course, they need to do extra hours of planning and marking, but their overall hours are shorter too. Finland’s status as a top-performing nation in academic terms should be no surprise. Their system also involves a high degree of union and local control, right down to the individual teacher level.

An American teacher working in Finland commented:

“At first, I was reluctant to make my way to the teachers’ lounge during breaks. [In Finland students and teachers have a 15-minute break after every lesson]. I saw these 15-minute chunks as ‘bonus prep time’ and would stay inside my classroom, fretting about the next lesson.

“Totally normal behaviour in an American school, right? But a few of my Finnish colleagues noticed this habit and worried that I might burn out. They challenged me to spend more time in the lounge, drinking coffee and catching up with colleagues. I took their advice and found that, lo and behold, breaks not only refreshed my students but also invigorated me.”

Shorter hours give teachers time to talk with each other about how they teach topics, to compare notes on how to deal with difficulties, and simply to think.

Smaller class sizes, less classroom time, and more teachers employed and staying in the job, would lead to an improvement in the overall standard of education as well as a reduced workload.

Many countries have a set limit on teachers’ classroom time, though usually higher than Finland’s 20. England has none. A limit on classroom time would be a lever to reduce overall working hours.

And there should be a limit on overall working hours. A limit of 48 hours would bring schools into line with the EU Working Time Directive, and reduce average hours over the year, including holidays, to the equivalent of 40 hours for a worker with the usual four weeks’ holiday a year.

Some teachers would be able to get their work done in less than 48 hours, some would do more; but it would be agreed that the workload for no teacher should exceed what can normally be done within 48 hours. If teachers were asked to complete additional duties — data analysis, meetings, rewriting schemes of work — then the school management would have to release them from other work to keep them within the 48 hour limit.

We could achieve that by:

a. cutting down on meetings and excessive marking and data analysis, by way of abolishing Ofsted and league tables, and returning many of schools’ excessive numbers of managers to classroom work;

b. limiting classroom hours

c. limiting school days

d. hiring more teachers.

Smaller classes and more teachers would mean that students get more direct discussion with teachers, and get round the supposed need for the lack of that discussion to be made good by huge amounts of written feedback.

Easter will see the NUT conference. The union leaders will call for a reduced workload, in line with their current policy. But current NUT policy is vague and diffuse, and doesn’t go nearly far enough.

We need to fight for positive demands that would improve the lives of teachers and the quality of education in the classroom.