Teacher workload – the final straw


With teachers now working the most unpaid overtime of any profession, Dr Mary Bousted argues why workload is becoming the final straw for many.

So now it’s official. Teachers work the most unpaid overtime of any profession. These findings, while shocking, will come as no surprise to teachers. Nor will they surprise their former colleagues who have left the profession due to unremitting and unsustainable workloads and the prospect of no release from the pounding pressure and daily grind that has become the lot of too many teachers. 

I was talking recently to a member who works with children with profound special needs. He is dedicated, professional and a highly effective classroom practitioner. He is, however, seriously considering leaving the profession because, in his view, teaching is not a career that is compatible with family life. 

He has two young children, and at the weekends would like to take them out together with his wife. But there is a problem: she is a teacher too. So, they take it in turns – one to look after the children, the other to do school work – throughout the whole weekend. They are both exhausted, and both are looking to leave the profession they love because their workload is unsustainable.

Various reasons are put forward for the unsustainable rise in teacher working hours: the demands of the new performance management and appraisal system and qualification and curriculum reform, among others. But we are clear that there is one, overwhelming factor in the rise of unsustainable teacher workload, and that is Ofsted.

Quite simply, the fear inspired by the threat of an Ofsted inspection infects the education system. School leaders, whose positions are becoming as temporary as football managers, require their staff to produce detailed evidence of every aspect of their professional practice. Lesson plans, assessment proformas, progress charts, and all the rest.

And while there is nothing wrong with effective lesson planning and assessment, the problem is that, in too many schools, what should be professional tools for teachers have become tools for management monitoring. 

It is as if nothing is thought to happen – no differentiation, no Assessment for Learning, no group work, no teacher exposition – if it is not written down.

The tragedy of so much of the work that teachers now do is that it contributes not one jot to effective teaching and productive learning. It is busy work, done so that school management have the evidence to show they are “on top” of teaching quality when the inspector calls. 

But the level of detail required in lesson planning is not conducive to deep thought (which makes connections and enables cross fertilisation of ideas and concepts). Rather, the more boxes that have to be ticked, and the more sections that need to be completed, the more they merely serve to stifle professional evaluation and innovation. 

What should be the core of teachers’ professional practice – deep thought, informed by evidence, on effective approaches to teaching and learning – becomes merely a bureaucratic hurdle; another box to be filled in and another criterion to be complied with.

If ministers are serious about raising standards of education in this country, they will take the findings of the teacher workload survey seriously. 

We are taking teachers’ workload seriously, which is why we will be setting out what we think should be done to enable teachers to spend their time on activities which improve children’s education, rather than on needless bureaucracy, in our own manifesto for education – Shape Education – in May.

We believe that teacher overload is one aspect of a toxic cocktail of pay restraint, lack of professional respect and sheer exhaustion which is leading to a growing crisis in teacher retention. 

It does not take much to create a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, but it takes a long time, and a lot of money to sort one out. The government should take heed.


• Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit www.atl.org.uk


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