Teacher workload continues to be a regular fixture in traditional media and social media discussions. Recent coverage has suggested that teachers are leaving the profession in greater numbers than ever, with a Guardian report in April this year claiming that one in five teachers plan to leave teaching within two years, and two fifths in the next five years.
An NEU survey cited within the report (see tinyurl.com/neu-work-19) worryingly found that 40% of respondents predicted they wouldn’t be working in education by 2024. The profession is in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis.
A long-term trend
These high attrition rates seem to boil down to one thing – work-life balance. Those leaving, or intending to leave the profession point to issues such as excessively long working hours, the amount of administration, increased class sizes, accountability pressures and Ofsted demands, as well as the impact of their work on their health and family life.
This increasing desire among educators to leave teaching might seem like a growing trend, but the statistics and reasons often given are hardly new. During her time as Education Secretary between 2014 and 2016, Nicky Morgan’s response to climbing attrition figures was to initiate a workload-related survey of teachers.
She subsequently established three independent teacher workload review groups to consider ways of eliminating unnecessary workload, which produced reports on marking, planning and teaching resources, and data management.
Each report set out a series of recommendations for the DfE, Ofsted, governing boards, school leaders, ITT providers, teachers and researchers, and they remain available on the DfE webpages.
The current Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has built on this work by developing a workload reduction toolkit for school leaders and a handbook for governing bodies, aimed at supporting schools in enabling a better work-life balance for their staff.
He’s also committed to collating robust evidence on teacher workload every two years and sought to publicise these efforts, as addressing those pressures that have stemmed from the prior focus in inspections on outcomes, associated floor targets and national benchmarks.
There’s clearly been an acknowledgement on the part of government of workload-related challenges currently being faced within and across the sector, and it’s taken visible steps towards providing a framework for addressing these issues.
These moves by government to reduce unnecessary workload should be welcomed. Every effort ought to be made to embrace these measures and engage with the resources and support being offered – and yet, I fear that this will have little impact on the daily working lives of teachers and school leaders, and as such, have only a limited impact on the attrition rates we’re currently seeing in schools.
Why? Because teachers are committed and selfless professionals. Seeing the children for whom they’re responsible achieve is important to teachers; it’s what they strive for. As a result, teachers are constantly looking to do things better – to deliver the perfect lesson, a great set of SATs outcomes, excellent behaviour, a stunning set of exercise books showing significant progress. Teachers aim to be outstanding.
I feel that word has a lot to answer for in terms of where we are with teacher workload, stress levels and the perceived lack of work-life balance. Aspiring to be outstanding results in teachers putting themselves under extreme pressure. That means that even when reforms are introduced with the specific aim of reducing workload, a teacher’s practice is unlikely to change.
There will still be that strong sense of professional commitment and pride, and a tendency for teachers to stick to their existing ways of working, despite the resulting negative impact on their wellbeing.
The short answer is no – not really. Instead, accept that a work-life balance is ultimately unattainable. How can anyone ever really expect to establish a ‘perfect’ balance between their work and personal life?
This desire to achieve and maintain an unattainable equilibrium between our working and ‘out of work’ lives could, in fact, be burdening us with additional pressure and stress. That’s the conclusion reached by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston in their book How Remarkable Women Lead. They suggest that we stop aspiring to achieve a work-life balance, and instead seek to establish a ‘managed disequilibrium’.
A managed disequilibrium acknowledges that there are times when work will be dominant in our lives and take up the majority of our time, imposing on our lives beyond and outside of work. It’s an approach which recognises there will be occasions when we need to put in a lot of hours, stay late and work weekends, but also that these need to be made up for at other times with the disequilibrium tipping the other way – towards our lives outside and beyond school.
Because there will be periods of time when there are fewer pressures and less going on, when there will opportunities to leave work closer to the end of the standard school day and not work at weekends. Accepting that the demands of teaching staff result in a disequilibrium, rather than striving to maintain a consistent balance between life at work and life at home, will reduce the pressures that many feel to try and attain the unattainable.
The key word here is ‘managed’ – we must all feel that we’re in control of this disequilibrium process, ensuring that the scales go both ways. As professionals, we should identify and plan for those busy times at work, whilst simultaneously ringfencing times when that’s less the case for our personal lives.
The following practical steps will have a significant impact on teachers’ wellbeing and careers:
1. Develop a strong support network
This may consist of colleagues, line managers and/or friends and family. People who will listen and offer realistic and practical advice.
2. Seek out a mentor
Someone experienced who a teacher or leader respects, and who can guide them through difficult stages of their career. A good mentor will offer advice, ask questions and be honest. A mentor isn’t necessarily for life; different people will make for ideal mentors at different stages of an individual’s career. Staff can be proactive in identifying who those people might be, simply by asking if possible candidates might be willing to mentor them.
3. Engage in coaching
A good coach will help staff work through various issues and problems, enabling them to find their own solutions via the use of effective questioning.
4. Know your supporters
A supporter is someone who champions another individual and their work, pushing them forward for opportunities and publicly applauding their achievement.
Catherine Carden is the faculty director of primary initial teacher education at Canterbury Christ Church University.