(This is a short version of a much longer article that appeared in Forum ( a magazine for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education) Vol 60 No 1.)

A survey of teachers carried out by the Guardian in 2016 confirmed what many teachers have known for a long time – that Government policies on education in recent times have had such a deleterious effect on teachers’ working lives that many were planning to leave the profession. A staggering 82% stated that their workloads were unmanageable, “with two thirds saying that expectations had increased significantly in the past five years”. These findings are in line with an analysis of the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), undertaken by the Education Policy Institute (Sellen, 2016), which found that teachers in England’s secondary schools were working, on average, longer hours than most of the other 35 developed countries and jurisdictions included in the survey. Moreover, the Guardian report backed up previous research by the Education Support Partnership (ESP) on the link between well being and workload which found that eight out of ten teachers it surveyed had suffered a mental health problem in the past two years.

In fact in terms of recruitment and retention this is a crisis which is already upon us not a prediction based current teacher intentions. As the EPI study pointed out “England had one of the fastest reductions in the proportion of teachers aged over fifty in secondary education between 2005 and 2014” and “one of the highest proportions of teachers under 30”, whilst “only 48 per cent of its teachers had more than ten years’ experience compared with an average of 64 per cent across jurisdictions.”  The study concludes that “this may signal that teachers are experiencing ‘burn-out’, before they even step into leadership roles.

Research Evidence

In line with its much-vaunted commitment to evidence-based policy, the Government has purportedly based its response on findings from teacher surveys. Regarding workload, the EPI research is quite clear that it is not the time spent teaching lessons which is responsible for the longer hours in English schools, but the time spent “planning lessons, writing assessments, marking and other functions that is driving long working hours.” Amongst other functions, it includes ‘data management.’ The Government commissioned study (Gibson et al, 2015) presents a similar picture, but interestingly this research takes a much closer look at what teachers feel are unnecessary and unproductive tasks. Tasks mentioned mostly fitted within the category of “lesson planning and policies, assessment and reporting administration.” The most burdensome for the majority of the sample were “recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data”, and excessively detailed and frequent marking.


Under the heading ‘Drivers of Workload’, many respondents said that the burden of their workload was created by accountability pressures, and the tasks set by senior/middle leaders. Under ‘Strategies and Solutions’ the most common responses to what might be the way forward were changes in accountability and support offered. The most common solutions suggested were changes to marking arrangements, less data inputting and analysis, and increased time for lesson planning, but reference was also made to broader issues to do with trusting teachers as professionals, reducing frequency of changes to curriculum/qualifications/ exams and changes to Ofsted processes.

The Need for a Change of Ethos

Overall it seems the studies confirm that the Government’s approach to accountability and the lack of trust that entails is one of the main sources of frustration for teachers. What teachers are really asking for is not a bit of advice about how to cope with heavy workloads but for a shift of emphasis from their being perceived as ‘managed employees’ to ‘trusted professionals.’ Increasingly the overemphasis on objective measures and numerical evidence is driving the development of practice in ways which many teachers instinctively object to because they know full well that these ‘facts and figures’ are often not valid, relevant or reliable, and act as a constraint on imaginative and inventive teaching, yet they cannot easily be gainsaid because ‘good’ school governance is said to rely on them.

More trust in teachers’ professional abilities is clearly one of the solutions to the problem, but this crucial aspect is not really addressed by the Government. If there is one thing that is in short supply in schools today it is trust. It could be the idea of trust is far too nebulous and open to interpretation for the ‘business model’ now operating, even when at the level of rhetoric trust is a much used term. Against this background is there any wonder that teachers are wary of accountability measures which the Government tells them are inextricably linked to their concerns for their own professional development as teachers?

Democratic Accountability

‘Trust’ implies a more self regulated profession and what has been described ( see Sachs, 2016) as a ‘responsive’ accountability where there is more concern with processes than outcomes, in contrast with ‘contractual’ accountability, where the focus is mainly on outcomes measures. These two forms of accountability will always be in tension, but it is a tension which is not impossible to resolve. The more democratically oriented the contracting government the more likely it is to understand the complexities which require the freedom to make on the spot judgements in the light of changing needs in different and diverse cohorts of students.

In the present circumstances, this ideal relationship between Government and the profession does not exist, and I’m not sure there are any signs that things are about to change. Despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary and many exceptions to the rule in individual schools., teachers continue to vote with their feet. It looks as though ‘blame the teacher’ culture is still alive and well. Although some form of bureaucratic structure in schools is always likely to be necessary ( see Tschannen-Moran, 2009), the layers of hierarchy in academy chains, with huge disparities in power and remuneration between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, makes a  mockery of the whole notion of autonomous professional..

Although talking about schools rather than teachers, the newly appointed head of Ofsted seems to toe the same line as her predecessors in this regard. She is apparently appalled at the way schools have gamed the system and pushed results over real learning ( see The Guardian, June 24, 2017), but as the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) points out in the same article whilst welcoming the “ the chief inspector’s call to put children’s education before the constraints of performance tables and school inspections….the subtext seems to be that the blame for any narrow compliance with accountability measures lies with the school. It doesn’t.”



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