Teacher unions united on message for next education minister: cut workload

Teachers are being pushed to their limits. Owen Humphreys/PA Archive

As the UK’s teacher unions meet over Easter for their annual conferences the word most likely to be on delegates’ lips is “workload”. Teacher frustration across a wide range of issues will coalesce around this issue. If any future government fails to seriously address the workload problem then teacher morale will decline further, more teachers will quit and demands for industrial action will intensify.

Workload is a touchpaper issue – it unites teachers and acts as a rallying point for frustration around a much wider range of concerns. For example, there are already visible signs of crises in relation to both teacher supply and school places. Meanwhile, the problems created by dismantling national pay scales for teachers are likely to increase inequalities across the profession and compound teachers’ frustrations.

Add to the mix an obvious anger in relation to the introduction of baseline testing for 4-years-olds and huge curriculum and assessment changes facing teachers elsewhere in the system and the grievances are easy to identify. Unpopular policy changes, ongoing austerity measures and the instability caused by rapid and radical marketisation is creating a perfect storm capable of blowing any secretary of state off course.

Culture of conformity

Teacher workload has been a central concern for many years – but has reached dangerously high levels under the current government. At its source are two connected problems. First is a national inspection system that exerts far too much control over what teachers do. Such is the fear that it engenders – and the cultures of conformity and compliance that flow from this – that huge pressures are being placed on classroom teachers to provide evidence for every detail of their work. In a low-trust culture, management is by numbers and the bureaucratic paper trail becomes king.

Workload has hit crisis point. Stressed teacher via racorn/www.shutterstock.com

The second problem is that teachers too often lack the confidence to challenge these developments, even when – as is often the case – the demands made on them conflict with their own sense of professional judgement. Recent examples of so-called “deep marking” – where teachers are asked to use three different colour pens for marking – illustrate this.

Ofsted acts as the driving force from above, but on the ground, it is often headteachers caught in the glare of Ofsted’s headlights who translate these pressures into unrealistic demands on classroom teachers’ time. In an environment where challenging such developments can often be seen as an act of dissent and disloyalty – with potential implications for employment – then it becomes easy to see how compliance is reinforced.

The current government is aware of workload problems, but has done little to address them. The secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, was very obviously appointed to defuse poor – and deteriorating – relations between the government and teacher unions during the era of her predecessor, Michael Gove.

But her efforts to court teachers by inviting them to undertake the “workload challenge” (to which more than 40,000 teachers responded) has merely added to cynicism by giving the impression of wanting to engage, but being unwilling to respond in any serious way. The likely outcome of this tokenism is that expectations of serious action to tackle workload will be much higher after the elections.

College of Teaching no fix for morale

It may be that the next secretary of state will put his or her faith in a new College of Teaching (an idea supported by all major parties) to rescue teacher morale and restore a sense of professional self-confidence. Such optimism would seem dangerously misplaced as it becomes clear that the College of Teaching is likely to compound divisions in an already overly fragmented profession, while failing to articulate the fundamental aspirations of the profession as a whole.

The real danger is that rather than be a genuinely “teacher-led” voice of the profession, the College of Teaching becomes another brick in the wall of the new education establishment. Teachers want access to excellent professional development – but what teachers need is a contract that protects them from being sweated at work, and which therefore gives them time and space to engage in professional development they feel in control of. They also need to have the confidence to speak up from below to a system where power is concentrated above. A College of Teaching addresses neither of these issues.

Unions united?

What seems likely is that whatever government emerges from the May 7 election, the new secretary of state will enjoy a period of grace during which teachers will look for a serious commitment to tackling their workload concerns. Any honeymoon period is unlikely to last for long. Teachers need action on workload now. Having expectations raised – and then dashed – by the so-called “workload challenge”, has merely compounded frustrations and added to a sense of urgency.

Teachers will look to their unions to articulate their concerns on this critical issue. Such is the strength of feeling that taking action on workload is likely to be the issue that unites teachers across their different unions. The education reforms of recent years have been designed to fragment the school system and weaken the organised voice of teachers within that.

There is no doubt that this much-changed environment has presented many challenges to the teacher unions. But what is also clear, as Michael Gove’s ignominious departure illustrated, is that teacher unions have retained considerable influence despite efforts to marginalise them. That influence will become a significant force to be reckoned with for the next secretary of state for education if he or she fails to tackle the issue of teacher workload urgently and seriously.