Autonomy, workload, wellbeing, Covid: A third of teachers say they will quit in next five years

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A third of teachers intend to quit in the next five years, new research suggests, with workload and a lack of autonomy once again among the key factors. However, the findings offer insights into how schools might effectively reduce workload too. Pete Henshaw takes a look

Mental wellbeing at work consists of a 10-minute mindfulness session rather than dealing with excessive workload or pointless data grabs."


There are fresh concerns over the state of mind and wellbeing of our nation’s teachers after a third said that they would definitely quit in the next five years.

Research involving 10,700 teachers from across England and Wales found that 70 per cent report an increased workload during the pandemic, while 95 per cent are concerned about their wellbeing.

Conducted by the National Education Union (NEU), the research found that 35 per cent said they would definitely be quitting in the next five years.

Meanwhile, 55 per cent said that their work/life balance was now worse than before the pandemic.

One respondent simply said: “Stress. Mental wellbeing at work consists of a 10-minute mindfulness session rather than dealing with excessive workload or pointless data grabs."

A third of the respondents said that their workload was “only just manageable” while another third said that it was “unmanageable” most or all of the time.

When asked about what strategies schools might adopt to reduce the workload burden, the most popular suggestion was a reduction in class sizes (47 per cent), more professional autonomy, reducing bureaucracy, and more PPA time (all at 44 per cent).

Other suggestions included employing more staff (43 per cent), reducing data requirements (39 per cent), changing approaches to marking and feedback (36 per cent), fewer meetings (35 per cent), and more collaboration (28 per cent).

The NEU research states: “Respondents indicated a strong view that professional autonomy, student focus through smaller classes, and more staff in order to administer them, is a route to resolving the historic workload challenge.

“But it is also clear that this must be matched by a government willing to step back and allow a space for teachers, leaders and support staff to do their job. It would require less bureaucracy, fewer reforms, and a reduction in the culture of data and high-stakes tests.”

When asked what would improve their wellbeing, the teachers said the receding of the pandemic (51 per cent), but also a reduction in workload (51 per cent), and a reduction in the stress caused by external accountability including performance tables and inspections (50 per cent) as well as internal accountability such as appraisal and observation (46 per cent).

Government figures show that teachers report working 49.5 hours a week, more than the Working Time Regulations maximum of 48 hours. However, research from the UCL Institute of Education in 2019 found that one in four teachers report working 60 hours or more a week.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It should come as no surprise that so many are thinking of leaving teaching. These findings come after a year in which the education profession – as key workers – have been provided few safety protections, had to improvise solutions where government had simply left a void, and were met with a pay freeze for their troubles.

“To create an environment in which so many are overworked and looking for an exit, it is a scandal that so little effort has been made by government to value the profession. Instead, they feel insulted, and for many there comes a point where enough is enough.

“It is the perennial issue of workload which is driving people out, and the survey shows that it is impacting on the wellbeing of almost all staff. It is the dead hand of Whitehall, of Ofsted and ‘data, data, data’ which is getting in the way of a fulfilling working life for too many education professionals.”

Issues of workload and wellbeing came to the fore during last week’s NEU annual conference, which took place online.

In his address to members, NEU president Dr Robin Bevan, headteacher of Southend High School for Boys, lamented the “the constant pressure of inspection regime that is intolerable in the impact that it has on our classes and on our colleagues” and the fact that we now have the largest average class sizes in Europe.

And in their address, joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted highlighted regular working weeks of 50 hours or more.

Dr Bousted cited teachers spending “hours and hours of wasted time filling in forms, inputting data and marking”. She also identified professional autonomy as a key area for improvement: “Nearly 40 per cent of teachers in England feel that they do not have enough control over their practice and are able to make professional decisions about the content of their lessons. Across the OECD, 81 per cent of teachers feel that they do have control of their practice. What are we doing wrong in this country to make teachers feel so lacking in professional empowerment and judgement?

“What are we doing in this country to make leaders so ground down? Why do they feel so strongly that the DfE is a hindrance rather than a help to their work? Why do they feel so unsupported by government despite their heroic efforts to educate children, to care for them, to run a test track and trace programme in their schools and colleges?”

The conference also saw delegates pass a motion calling on the union to campaign for “significant and immediate reductions in workload”, to promote the use of Workload Charters in schools, and to carry out further research into the impact of workload on staff mental health.

Commenting on the motion, Mr Courtney said: “Annual conference has endorsed the NEU’s aim of pursuing improvements on workload with individual schools and employers, as part of a broader programme to restore workplace bargaining on professional issues.”


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