Workload worries?

More than five years after the National Workload Agreement was signed by government and the unions, just what effect have the reforms had on teaching and support staff? Words by Dorothy Lepkowska

The signing of the National Workload Agreement in 2003 signalled the beginning of a new era of social partnership between the government and teachers in England and Wales.

The agreement acknowledged the burdens, bureaucracy and pressures placed on the workforce to raise standards, cope with workload and implement new initiatives.

The Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG), a partnership of 11 organisations including ATL, was established to oversee the changes and support schools with issues such as remodelling, changes to the pay structure and performance management, and implementing new professional standards.

One of the key aspects of the agreement was the list of more than 20 administrative and bureaucratic tasks that teachers were no longer to carry out but which were to be handed over to support staff.

Under the agreement, schools also introduced planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, which freed up 10% of the timetabled week away from pupils to plan and mark lessons. But more than five years on, what impact have the reforms had on the working lives of teachers?

A sample survey of 1,100 ATL members in England and Wales found a generally positive picture, with the majority of teachers benefitting from the agreement's provisions. More than 7 out of 10 teachers - 72.5% - said they almost always received their PPA time, although the remaining 27.5% reported they usually, seldom or never received the time.

When it came to teachers covering for absent colleagues - another stipulation of the agreement - half of respondents seldom or never had to cover. Of the remaining respondents, a quarter said they were asked to do cover about once a week or more, with a further quarter being expected to do it at least once a term.

Martin Johnson, ATL's deputy general secretary, said the union could only speculate as to why more than a quarter of teachers did not almost always receive their PPA time. "Together with our social partners and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, we have been doing a lot of work in local authorities and advising schools that the terms of the agreement are not optional but contractual requirements," he said.

"I believe that in many schools, heads simply do not accept that this applies to them, and perhaps there is some resistance to it because it does not fit the style of working or the culture of the school. Some believe they can't afford the extra staff."

He said that ATL deals with cases of non-compliance through normal casework procedures, with local representatives having a "friendly discussion" with heads to remedy the situation. He was, however, "gratified" that half of teachers did little or no cover.

"Many teachers will not be aware that from September 2009 they will no longer have to cover at all, and that schools will have to make alternative arrangements using appropriately recruited and trained support staff," he added.

Although PPA and not having to cover have alleviated some workload issues, the recent School Teachers' Review Body Teachers' Workloads Diary Survey suggests teachers' average weekly working hours are creeping back up to the same levels as before the agreement was signed, at around 52.2 hours a week for primary teachers and 49.9 for secondary teachers.

An increase in hours has also been recorded for heads, with primary heads working an average of 55.2 hours a week and secondary heads working an average 59.5 hours. Reasons for the increase in workload requires more research, according to Mr Johnson, who suggests that initiatives such as extended schools, creating and recording targets on pupil performance, over-prescribed lesson planning and preparation for classroom observation contribute to extra hours.

According to ATL's survey, almost half - 48% - of respondents said they were required by their senior management team to complete standard lesson plans, with almost 14% of heads asserting these were necessary to satisfy Ofsted's school self-evaluation form requirements - even though Ofsted stopped asking for lesson plans several years ago.

Mr Johnson said: "We have been in discussion with Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, about this but it has proved to be a sterile discussion at times. "She tells us that schools are no longer required to produce lesson plans for the purposes of inspections and yet our survey found that almost half of teachers were still required to produce them. So there seems to be a communication problem somewhere."

When asked whether working to standard lesson plans improved their teaching, 60% of respondents said they believed it did not. Almost 85% said it should be up to the teacher how they record their lesson plans, and the same number believed that the outcome of the lesson was more important than the plan itself.

Classroom observations also proved to be a sticky issue. Significantly, more than 54% of respondents felt that observation by managers did not improve their teaching despite 18% having been observed more than four times in the last academic year.

"The frequency of lesson observations is patchy around the country, but there still seem to be schools where the head wants to crack the whip," Mr Johnson said. "We have gone to immense pains to ensure that in the new performance management regulations, which came into effect a year ago, there is a holistic approach to this, with continuous professional development offered to staff.

"We see nothing wrong in heads observing classes where teachers might need some guidance on an aspect of their classroom practice, with a view to offering them any training and continuous professional development they need.

"For example, a teacher may need to stretch high achievers more and may need some professional development on how to do this.

"What we are most concerned about is observation that has no useful purpose and where no feedback is offered."

As well as increased workloads for teachers and heads, what of the teaching assistants and other support staff who comprise new tiers of the profession? Jenny Inglis, ATL's lead Executive member for support staff, said non-qualified school workers felt increasingly put-upon and that they received little recognition of their contribution.

"There is a growing cynicism," she said. "Staff do not want to be told how wonderful they are - they want to see it reflected in their pay packets."

She said there had been a 'drip-drip' of additional responsibilities being laid at the doors of support staff. In one case dealt with by ATL, a classroom assistant was expected to take a GCSE class. "The school and local authority were reminded that this was not the intention of the agreement," she said. "Not surprisingly, she could not cope and left her job.

"The job descriptions of support staff have become increasingly fuzzy, with more and more roles and responsibilities being placed on them."

In another school, a qualified HLTA was only used in that capacity for two hours a week and was only paid as an HLTA for those hours. The rest of the time she was paid at the lower scale.

Elsewhere, a classroom assistant was expected to remain at school for an additional three hours on top of her working time, with no extra pay, so she could 'liaise with the class teacher'. "The role and responsibilities of support staff, as well as their hours of work and pay, need to be more clearly defined," Ms Inglis said.

Mr Johnson believes, nevertheless, that the agreement is leading to a major cultural shift in schools in England and Wales. "In time, this will prove to be far greater in its significance than the two hours a week it frees up teachers," he said. "It has completely changed the way that schools think about staffing issues. "Of course, there will always be those teachers who will put in the hours because of their love of the job. We want to make it their choice, and not a requirement."

He said it was hard to tell exactly to what extent teacher time had been freed up because there were always reforms and initiatives that had to be implemented, such as the curriculum and examination changes taking place this term, which required planning and time. "Despite the strides we have made, there is still a long way to go and the agreement has not yet solved all the problems," he added.

Outside of the agreement in England and Wales, the story for teachers is different. In Northern Ireland, the Curran Independent Inquiry, set up in 2003 to examine teachers' pay and conditions of service, recommended an element of PPA time, though whether or not this is ever implemented remains under review.

A survey carried out last year found that teachers in the province were among the most over-worked in the UK, working an average of more than 50 hours a week. Mark Langhammer, ATL Northern Ireland director, said a working group of the Negotiating Committee for Teachers, comprising union representatives, employers and managers, has since been asked to look at PPA within the grounds of cost neutrality - a situation which is impossible to achieve because of a lack of funding.

"There has been a reluctance to introduce higher level teaching assistants because of significant unemployment among school teachers," Mr Langhammer said. "At the point of leaving teacher training institutions, there is an unemployment rate of up to 80% among graduates because teacher training is not regulated.

"Teachers in Northern Ireland are burned out by the time they are in their 40s and have a high level of stress,
with workload blamed as the main factor. As a result we have quite a demand for early retirement and voluntary redundancy."

Issues with workload also affect the UK's independent sector. Keith Robson, ATL Scotland's national official, said teachers from the independent sector faced "significant challenges to their work-life balance". "It is not unusual for members to tell us they work six days a week, including an expectation that they will participate in extracurricular activities as a matter of course," he said.

"That is why earlier this year ATL Scotland launched its work-life balance campaign to raise awareness of the issue and to gather more qualitative and quantitative information from members to aid the campaign."

A UK-wide ATL campaign is underway to support teachers' professional judgement and to ensure all education staff are aware of what they are entitled to under the workload agreement.

See the workload section of this website for more information.

Image (c) Getty

A man climbs a mountain of paperwork (c) Getty

Despite the strides we have made, there is still a long way to go and the agreement has not yet

Martin Johnson, ATL deputy general secretary


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