If you ask teachers what the worst aspect of their job is, a very big majority will point to excessive workload. We know this because they have been asked by trade unions and by academic researchers on a regular basis.
In particular, research commissioned by government to identify why so many people leave the job consistently shows that workload is a crucial factor. Teacher trade unions are aware of the importance of this issue but have taken two diametrically opposed paths in dealing with it.
The NASUWT and ATL have taken the route of social partnership. They made an agreement with the government and local authority employers in 2003 which promised some reductions in workload in return for an acceptance that the school workforce would be “remodelled” so that support staff would do some of the things teachers do.
The actual result of this agreement has been that support staff who have not been trained and are not being paid enough are being expected, in more and more cases, to teach classes. In addition 30,000 teachers who once received additional payments for taking on extra responsibilities have lost them, and this is expected to rise to 50,000 by the end of this year. The workload concessions gained by this are fairly minimal.
Teachers have a guaranteed 10% planning and preparation time (PPA), and a legal limit on the annual amount of cover has been introduced. Increasingly the evidence is that these measures have had little or no real effect in reducing workload.
The School Teachers Review Body (STRB) conducts regular surveys of teachers’ working and teaching hours. The 2007 survey found that teachers and head teachers in primary schools saw a rise in working hours from those recorded in 2006. The hours worked by teachers in special schools rose for the first time since 2000. The 2006 survey made the remarkable admission that the workforce reforms had achieved “no statistically significant difference” to teachers’ working hours. The social partnership route has demonstrably failed to deliver for the workforce, though it has delivered a cheaper and more exploited labour force for the employers.
The NUT has taken a different approach to workload. Mainly on the grounds that the concessions made as part of the remodelling agreement were unacceptable, we stayed out of social partnership. Every child should have a qualified teacher in every class - that has been the NUT principle. As far as workload is concerned, the NUT drew up detailed set of guidelines in 2005 which covered the full range of issues including class size, meetings, planning, lesson observations, bureaucratic tasks. These were rolled out to local divisions and associations who were encouraged to submit requests for strike action from individual schools.
While this approach is light years better than that of the NASUWT and ATL, it does have problems. The most serious is the reliance on members in individual schools to take action alone.
Workload is a national problem requiring a national approach. Members in small schools where the NUT may be a minority union need, where possible, to be able to benefit from the collective strength of the union. It is very often the case that teachers who are weighed down by excessive meetings and demands for planning or observations are willing to do something, but are not prepared to strike.
The impact of these problems can be seen in the fact that a very small number of requests for action have come to the union’s action sub-committee, despite a genuine attempt to encourage them. Most of the requests that have come in have been from secondary school members resisting proposals to reduce their lunch break. The good thing is that these requests have been agreed and the disputes have generally been successful in defending conditions.
The reality is, however, that the most serious workload problems are in the primary sector. and the union still has not found a way to tackle these. In Leeds we have tried to develop a strategy which can generate some action in primary schools to fight back against excessive and unreasonable workload demands.
We consulted primary school activists and looked at our casework records to identify the priority areas of concern for members. It was very clear that these were meetings, requirements to hand in planning, and excessive lesson observations. We surveyed a huge sample of members on their attitudes to action on these areas, and got huge support.
One of the keys to this is that we offered the option of non-strike action, i.e. refusal to attend more than one meeting per week, to hand in short-term planning or accept more than three observations per year.
We went to the national union seeking support for a city-wide ballot of primary members. The response was supportive and positive in principle, but cautious about the detail. We were told that any dispute would legally be with individual schools rather than with the local authority, and that separate ballots would have to be held in schools where there was support for it.
The revised plan we came away with was to identify those primary schools which had problems with these workload areas, offer them support for non-strike action and seek to co-ordinate the ballots and the action so that we have a collective programme of workload action.
We are now working with a group of about 14 primary schools to explore whether we start co-ordinated action in the summer term. Any action will be a step forward in the campaign to reduce workload. Any success will be used to roll the action out to other schools.
We will bring the same approach to secondary and special schools too. It is important to understand that there is nothing about this approach that can’t be adopted by other areas. It is also important to see this not as an alternative to calls for national action, but as a way to develop the current NUT workload campaign into a more effective instrument to engage and defend members.