Toppling off the teacher workload tightrope

It’s common for those of us not in the profession to joke about the amount of holiday teachers receive. What’s not to like about a job that grants you six weeks holiday every summer, a break every 8 weeks or so and day that supposedly ends at 4pm?

Well, clearly quite a lot.

On the day that members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) walked out over their workload, figures from the Department for Education revealed that nearly a third of teachers who began work in 2010 have already departed the sector.

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that our education sector faces a recruitment crisis. But with budgets tighter than ever, is there a realistic solution to the problem of teacher workload?

In 2014 the Department for Education embarked upon the teacher workload challenge, including a survey of the profession to pinpoint the core of the issue. Then, in 2015, it established three working groups to consider teacher workload. These groups examined the use of data, planning and marking and reported in March of this year.

The Scottish Government has embarked on a similar process since the SNP were returned to power in May. But as yet, little headway appears to have been made in either England or Scotland.

The problem facing governments, be they based in Westminster or one of the devolved administrations, is that the only sure fire solution to this problem is a financial one. If the government wants to change the dynamic facing the teaching profession in any sort of timely manner, they need more teachers or to pay teachers more – and either way costs money.

The alternative is to increase class sizes and, to be blunt, few governments would be willing to explicitly endorse such a policy if it even has half a mind on its poll ratings.

In the SNP’s case, Nicola Sturgeon has largely staked her reputation on educational improvement north of the border, with the Scottish National Improvement Framework, the Attainment Challenge and by appointing her most trusted lieutenant, Deputy First Minister John Swinney, as Cabinet Secretary for Education. She needs educational results, and fast, and teachers walking out of work over workloads is certainly not going to help.

All solutions to this particularly issue take time and time is something that government, be it in Westminster or Holyrood, doesn’t have. Even if the administrations can find a solution, it will take time to implement and for its impact to manifest. In the meantime the effects of teacher shortages will continue to be felt. One possible option is the greater use of existing software and administrative systems to make more effective use of data, to reduce the amount of information teachers are forced to collect and to smooth the process by which schools communicate electronically with the DfE.

Those in power and in charge of our education systems need to strike a balance between action that will create change in the long term and that which provides immediate reassurance for parents, pupils and teachers.

Without financial resources to throw at the problem, it may that administrations across the UK begin to topple off this particular tight rope.