Unions speak out on workload, working conditions and mental health

Written by: Jessica Morgan & Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Image: iStock

Workload once again topped the agendas at the teaching union annual conferences, with specific concerns being raised by the NUT about the impact on young teachers and the NASUWT about the emerging trend of teachers being forced to take on booster and intervention classes. Jessica Morgan and Dorothy Lepkowska report

Teachers are being forced out of the profession early in their career because of the pressures of workload and concerns for their mental health a report has found.

A survey of more than 3,000 young teachers aged 35 years and under by the National Union of Teachers’ Young Teachers Party, highlighted the issues facing recently qualified teachers and NQTs.

Eighty-five per cent reported that they are finding it very difficult to keep a reasonable work/life balance, 77 per cent said that their moral had declined since they began teaching, while nearly half who took part said they thought they would leave the teaching profession within five years – with 50 per cent citing concerns about the impact teaching has on their mental health.

Laura Chisholm, a year 7 science teacher from Portsmouth, who is on the committee of the NUT Young Teachers Party, said young and inspiring teachers are being lost from classrooms and that she was “sick of seeing young teachers down trodden”.

Speaking before the NUT’s annual conference in Cardiff last week she told SecEd: “For one teacher I know it was his life-long ambition to be a teacher. He was a wonderful and inspiring teacher but after two years he left the profession because his mental health problems got such that he said, ‘it’s not worth it, it’s not worth my job taking over my life and my personal life and affecting my wellbeing’.

“That’s such a loss, especially working in an inner city area where it’s especially important to have inspiring teachers. We should be left to teach and provide awesome opportunities for learning. We end up filing endless paperwork, box-ticking, trying to prove we do our jobs.”

Henry Emori, another teacher discussing his concerns ahead of the NUT’s annual conference, said: “It’s disheartening to see how frequent people leave the profession. We are losing experience. I think the biggest thing is the mental health issues it is causing teachers. This has to be looked into.”

The maths teacher acknowledged that long hours were part of the job, but said they were often being worked for the wrong reasons:

“Teaching has always been a profession where you have to work extended hours, and we understand that. But … it just becomes very bureaucratic and it’s not about learning any longer.

“Extra hours are put in for admin, data or meetings – it’s not extra hours for the kids. I came into teaching to teach for the rest of my life but at various points I’ve asked myself, ‘can I keep this up?’. What keeps me going is the passion for the kids. I think if I go who will be here for the kids?”

The survey also found that 32 per cent of NQTs felt they had not received adequate support in their first year of training and 74 per cent said they were working 51 hours or more per week, with nearly a quarter saying they are doing more than 61 hours.

The Department for Education said it was working on ways to improve teachers’ career progression to encourage them to stay in the profession.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, said: “The NUT encourages young teachers to know their rights and to be confident to say that a 50-hour working week is not acceptable.

“Mental wellbeing is a key issue for young teachers and a decent work/life balance is therefore essential to facilitating good mental health.

“Young teachers are the future of the profession yet many talented and enthusiastic professionals are being driven away from teaching to the detriment of our children’s education.

“The government needs to accept its responsibility in this crisis and take positive steps to resolve the issues behind the problem of teacher workload that are clearly blighting the profession.”

Meanwhile, teachers at the NASUWT annual conference have warned that they are working in a “climate of fear” and being bullied into providing breakfast, lunchtime and after-school revision and booster classes for “lazy” students.

Delegates at the event, also held over Easter, heard that “desperate” heads are coercing teachers into doing additional work without any extra pay, it was claimed. As a result of the intervention sessions students believed they didn’t need to do any further revision because teachers had done it for them.

The NASUWT, meeting in Manchester, also published a report based on responses of almost 5,000 members, highlighting the impact of workplace culture on their personal and family lives.

It showed that almost one in 10 teachers had suffered a relationship break-up in the last year which they said was directly related to their job.

Louis Kavanagh, a delegate from Solihull, told the conference that heads believed that pressurising teachers into holding intervention sessions made them look “robust in the eyes of inspectors and others”.

“Too many of our senior colleagues have forgotten what teachers do normally, day-in, day-out through their work with students,” he said. “In some schools the extra classes are borne of desperation, and compensation for a poor learning culture, lazy students, pitiable parenting, ineffectual school discipline measures, and structures putting all the burden on the class teacher.

“The faulty logic here is that if the student isn’t working or making the right progress or taking responsibility then it must be that the class teacher is failing or isn’t doing enough.

“If the classroom teacher is to be held culpable for everything then the student is responsible for nothing, and the school is absolved.”

Delegates approved a motion calling on the NASUWT to consider instructing teachers not to hold sessions held outside the timetabled school day.

Seconding the motion, Katherine Carlisle, from Birmingham, told the conference that teachers were being “guilt-tripped” into running extra-curricular booster classes. She said that in the previous year she was running intervention sessions on four out of five days after school, and every lunchtime.

“I had no lunchtimes and couldn’t start any of my planning and other work until well after 4:30pm,” Ms Carlisle said. “Needless to say this massively affected my work/life balance.

“Why did I do these extra nine sessions a week plus planning with no pay? Because I was made to feel that I had to. In my view, intervention amounts to exploitation of teachers.”

The NASUWT’s workplace culture report found that two-thirds of respondents said their job limited their time with partners and families, and almost six out of 10 said their family and friends got fed up with the pressures that teaching put on relationships.

Nearly six in 10 said teaching had had an adverse impact on their mental health in the last 12 months, and 52 per cent said it had had a detrimental impact on their physical health.

Teachers report turning to alcohol and caffeine (both 22 per cent), medication such as anti-depressants (11 per cent), and tobacco (five per cent) to help them cope. Twelve per cent had had counselling, while 44 per cent had been to hospital as a result of work-related illness.

Delegates also debated a motion on the abuse of performance management and the use of pupil targets as a means of scrutinising staff.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “It is important that pupils who need extra support with their learning receive that targeted help, however neither pupils nor teachers benefit if they are being overburdened with excessive hours of additional lessons which are eating into weekends, holidays and break times.

“Teachers running additional classes face bullying and threats to their jobs, pay and career progression if they do not comply. The union should not be being forced into escalating industrial action to secure the basic working conditions that teachers have a right to expect. However, the NASUWT will continue to do whatever it takes to protect teachers from these unacceptable practices.”

More from the union conference halls

For more reports from the debates at the ATL, NASUWT and NUT annual conferences, which all took place during the Easter period, see:


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