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Survey: state school teachers say much of their work is meaningless

Why are so many teachers quitting or off with stress? shutterstock

It is no secret that teaching is facing a crisis. Recent figures show that the number of full-time, qualified teachers starting work in state schools has fallen since 2015 – from 45,450 to 42,430 in 2017. Meanwhile, 42,830 teachers left the classroom for good last year.

My recent survey of more than 800 teachers from across England investigates what schools can do to improve teachers’ job satisfaction.

The survey report compares working conditions in England’s state and independent schools. I wanted to identify what contributes to teachers’ job satisfaction, and what each sector can learn from the other in order to improve working conditions and address the national teacher retention crisis.

The findings

It’s probably not surprising to learn that independent school teachers are more satisfied and less stressed than their state counterparts. But it might be more surprising to learn that, during term time, teachers in both state and independent schools teachers work an average of 55 hours per week.

The survey found that the number of hours worked is not linked to job satisfaction for teachers in either sector. But while independent teachers have longer holidays and smaller classes, the nature of the work teachers are asked to undertake – and the ways in which they are monitored – was found to be a big factor in job satisfaction.

Many of the surveyed state teachers reported feeling that much of their work is meaningless. They mentioned activities such as: colour coding complex seating plans, triple marking children’s work, and evidencing verbal feedback in exercise books. After marking, the books are left in school so that they are “inspection ready”.

Pointless tasks

Ofsted, the state school inspectorate, is eager to dispel myths about what its inspectors want to find. To this end, it has created a YouTube channel with “myth-busting videos”, and a dedicated hashtag: #Oftsedmyths. Ofsted’s social media campaign and handbook extensively outline what not to do for or during an inspection. But in terms of positive recommendations, Ofsted’s regional director for London, Mike Sheridan, merely advises schools to do “what works”.

Despite these messages from Ofsted, schools hold onto these practices without any evidence that they are effective. This could be because schools need clearer guidance about the kind of policies and strategies that do work for pupils and teachers.

Teacher levels are at a record low. Shutterstock

With these policies in place, school leadership teams conduct book marking inspections, or brief on-the-spot observations – known as “climate walks” or “learning walks”. Such checks ensure that teachers are ready for Ofsted and are following school policies.

Some state school teachers in the survey identified monitoring processes as contributors to burdensome workloads. A few stated that they felt “watched”, or “not trusted” to do their job –- feelings which can detract from job satisfaction.

The independent sector

Independent schools may also have strict marking and feedback policies. The sector’s teachers are also externally inspected and are monitored by colleagues – so why is it that they are less stressed and more satisfied than state teachers?

The extent to which pupil feedback and marking policies differ between sectors is not known. Although some of the independent teachers in the survey identified bureaucracy and reporting to parents as burdensome tasks, very few commented on their schools’ marking, or pupil feedback requirements. This suggests that these areas might not be a major concern for the independent school teachers.

The survey and additional interviews with more than 20 teachers from each sector show that independent school leaders do monitor their teachers. But interviewees from the sector saw monitoring processes as professional development opportunities rather than accountability mechanisms.

Understanding why

For many of the state school teachers who were interviewed, the link between monitoring and professional or pupil development has broken down. Teachers expressed confusion over the purpose of “learning walks” and “book trails”.

At worst, these processes are viewed as clumsy tools used to judge their professional competence. At best, they experience them as meaningless activities that have little positive effect on their professional development – or social, emotional, or academic outcomes of their pupils.

Schools looking to improve teachers’ job satisfaction might consider evaluating the purpose and audience for existing marking and feedback policies alongside their internal auditing processes. Because if teachers, pupils and parents are truly at the forefront of these policies, then where is the tangible evidence showing that they work to the benefit of those people? If there is none, it’s time for a rigorous research-informed review.

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