The National Agreement on teacher workload: where did it all go wrong?

Rob Webster

The French have a saying for it: ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’; the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today the Government announced the Workload Challenge. For most teachers and school leaders, this phrase is a way of life. They view their workload as nothing less than a challenge! Hardly surprising, as they spend many of the 50 to 60 hours they work each week ‘struggling to stay on top of piles of incident reports, over-detailed lesson-plan templates, health and safety forms, departmental updates, training requests and so on’.

So says Nick Clegg, whose wider aim is to apply to the public sector the principles that (he claims) have slowed down the ‘train of bureaucracy’ in the business world. A teacher-led panel, reports the Guardian, ‘will work with Ofsted on how to deliver a series of reforms to [teacher] workload’. For anyone who was in the profession in the early-noughties, this may invoke a sense of déjà vu. The damaging effect of excessive workload on teacher recruitment and retention led to the Labour government signing a deal with local government employers and all but one of the teaching unions in January 2003. Often referred to as the National Agreement, its key aim was ‘tackling workload’. A major part of the Agreement strategy was to sharply increase the number of support staff.

Schools began to employ more teaching assistants (TAs), deploying some existing TAs in new higher level TA roles, recruiting cover supervisors to lead classes in teachers’ absence, and recruiting new staff to existing and new roles to do ‘non-teaching’ functions. Schools took on new administrators, finance officers, bursars, school business managers, reprographics staff and exams officers.

In fact, the trend continued. In 2005, there were just under 1,300,000 support staff working in schools; today, it’s around 1,600,000. Support staff now comprise half the school workforce. There is good evidence from two large-scale studies of English and Welsh schools that the delegation of teachers’ routine admin tasks to support staff freed teachers up to focus more time on planning, assessment and teaching. Benefits were also found in terms of reducing workload and improving teachers’ perceptions of stress and job satisfaction.

But looking back, it seems the National Agreement was a short-lived and partial success for teachers. While efforts to remodel the workforce did offer some succour, it failed to reduce the number of hours teachers worked in any significant way. Data from the last 20 years shows that between 1994 and 2010, the average hours worked by primary teachers fluctuated around a mean of 51.2 hours (range: 48.8 hrs to 52.8 hrs), and for secondary teachers, around a mean of 49.9 hours (range: 48.7 hrs to 51.3 hrs)*. The latest figures for 2013 show that primary teachers now work, on average, 59.3 hours a week, and secondary teachers work 55.7 hours a week (for those in academies, the figure is 55.2 hours). Headteachers work more than 60 hours a week.

While figures from the Teachers’ Workload Surveys show no decrease in hours worked over time, there have been changes in the way these hours are spent. For example, the Agreement still guarantees teachers 10% of their week off timetable for planning, preparation and assessment. However, even though many schools continue the practice of deploying support staff to cover classes instead of teachers, protections relating to routine tasks were removed last year. It is possible that the withering of the National Agreement, together with alarm about the sharp increase in hours worked, is a contributor to the new initiative to address workload.

The reasons why the National Agreement has not had any lasting impact warrant further exploration. Policymakers ought to conduct some sort of ‘policy autopsy’ in order to avoid the mistakes of the recent past and to help clarify the terms and objective of new reforms. Few would find fault with Nick Clegg’s aim of ‘giving our teachers more time to do what they do best: creating and planning the best possible lessons and experiences for our children’. But would new reforms prompted via the Workload Challenge aim to reduce teachers’ hours of work, or help them to manage their workload within the hours they work? Or both.

Efforts to reduce teacher workload seem to succumb, sooner or later, to the law that nature abhors a vacuum. Despite attempts to dispel myths about the bureaucratic requirements of Ofsted inspection, the likelihood is that whatever work is taken away from teachers’ workload mountain in future will be replaced by work relating to other concerns, which at the moment may seem peripheral: bedding in extensive curriculum changes; adjusting to new Progress 8 measures; and devising meaningful assessment techniques as an alternative to levels. A point that requires clarification is whether this olive branch to the profession from Mr Clegg – a man who is now synonymous with the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as free lunch’ – is to be accompanied at some point with an expectation that efforts to ease teachers’ workload should lead to a positive impact on standards?

If so, policymakers must be aware of the evidence base for such claims. For example, Hutchings et al (2009) found no evidence that the ways in which schools had remodeled their workforce in response to the National Agreement had any impact on attainment. In her message to the profession to introduce the Workload Challenge, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – who has been a cheerleader for workload reform since taking over from Michael Gove – is inviting teachers to identify the nature and origin of ‘the unnecessary tasks that take you away from teaching’, and suggest ‘solutions and strategies for tackling workload’. Identifying the problems will be easier than identifying proven and scalable solutions. But if the evidence is anything to go by, we will need smarter solutions than those deployed in response to the National Agreement, if we are to ensure a sustainable effect. Taming workload has been the profession’s bête noire for many years. Teachers should seize this opportunity to have their say. * Data for some years between 1994 and 2003 are missing.

This post first appeared on Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants

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Posted in Education policy, Leadership and management, Teachers
2 comments on “The National Agreement on teacher workload: where did it all go wrong?
  1. Graham Holley says:

    The National Agreement did work well in certain respects – ensuring schools’ compliance with the law through Government and unions’ cooperation; banning the 21 routine tasks like photocopying which teachers haven’t spent years training to do; ensuring there were no strikes or industrial action in schools following some quite troubled years; bringing about more and some better use of teaching assistants; and at the margins producing better reforms and policies than would have been introduced by the Government working alone.

    It did become over-bureaucratic and an anchor on the system, and arguably offered more benefits for the unions involved than for the Government. But on the whole it was an interesting and largely beneficial social experiment in widening the democratic and power base.

    The most damning indictment is that it did not of itself raise educational standards, or at least not much. Teachers, freed from routine tasks, did not generally use that time on activities that would raise achievement and/or improve their teaching. They did not even just work fewer hours. They largely substituted some routine tasks with others, which made it all rather pointless.

    I would hope that these lessons from the recent past might be learned, but I somehow doubt it,

  2. Geoff Petty says:

    Great piece. Do you know of an analysis of how class-contact time per week affects student achievement? The time teachers have to prepare, mark, research etc PER hour of teaching is a key quality measure I would expect. I gather class contact per week in Denmark & Taiwan is about half that in the UK. Makes prep time per hour of teaching massively greater. See paper on teaching load on my website.
    Thanks for a great piece.
    Geoff

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