Last night I wrote a tweet. Something had been bothering me for days. Behind the headline figure of “30% of new entrants to teaching leave within five years” was an odd statistic. The figure had largely been unchanged since 1996 – in all that time, we’ve lost around 30% of new teachers every year. Maybe they had decided it wasn’t for them. Maybe they’d moved into the private sector or abroad. Whatever the reason, some were very quick to point out that things mustn’t have got worse for teachers in recent years at all. A couple even managed to turn it around as a triumph for Michael Gove. I know! Eye roll. Those people were mostly not teachers. I know that things got worse. I know because I left. My heartbroken blog post, written on the day I resigned, remains to this day the most widely read of all those I have written and many wrote to me to say they felt the same.
Of course, I wouldn’t appear in those attrition figures – I’d been teaching for just over 20 years. I wonder what the attrition rate for more experienced teachers is and how that has changed over time? But even more than that, I wonder, how many have taken the decision to move to part time hours in order to cope with a workload that is simply unbearable? That was the tweet I wrote last night :-
How many of you went part time to cope with work/life balance or know someone who has? And is this an invisible factor in teacher shortages?
8:03 PM – 27 Oct 2016 ·
The response has been extraordinary – hundreds of responses from people saying that they had. But also from teachers explaining that in their departments, over 50% of the teaching staff are part time and from heads saying that in order to keep staff they have had to support part time requests for work – one saying that most of the classes in her primary school were job shared and that she was happy to do it to keep good staff. This might not be a problem, were it not for two things.
Firstly, most of those saying they had moved to part time hours, were working on their days off. The part time hours meant that they could work full time but have at least one day off at the weekend. One common factor for many was that becoming a parent had created the breaking point. They saw full time teaching as completely incompatible with family life – both men and women. Most of those who had not made the decision to move to part time work said they wished they could, but they couldn’t afford to do it.
Secondly, it is harder to find two teachers than one when a full time post becomes available. Part time workers create a headache for recruiters. It’s one of the reasons that many requests are denied. Not only is recruitment harder, but many senior managers worry about the impact of split class teaching on the pupils. It can work well, but it can also be fragmented and damaging. In an ideal world, a full time post would be manageable enough that people wanted to do it and earn a full time wage.
When I went into teaching, I had a six month old baby and was a single parent. It wasn’t easy, but the roles of Mum and teacher were compatible. I’d mark when he slept. My weekends were my own. I don’t remember having to work weekends at all in the first eight years, unless I had rehearsals or was on a trip. I did lots of those, because I had the energy to do them. What changed? Planning expectations, marking expectations, extra meetings, work scrutiny, damned spreadsheets and data reporting, project this and project that. “What Ofsted want” initiatives that came and went. All underpinned by fear. The teaching didn’t change. But proving that the teaching worked, even beyond the scope of results, became all consuming. Teaching became a small fragment of the job. The best bit, but often the bit that paid the price in the attempt to make everything look alright. The irony!
In the year before I left teaching, I too, dropped to 0.8 in an attempt to cope. Before I did this, I was regularly working 70 hours per week. I left for work before my children woke up. I got home after the youngest had gone to bed. My husband, also a teacher, had already gone down to 0.8. It allowed him to be the primary care giver, but he was still cracking from the strain of what was really full time work with an absent wife. So I dropped my hours too. My 70 hour week dropped to around 55 hours – losing classes means losing marking and planning. But those still taught effectively meant I had to work full time, just be paid for part time work. Of those teachers who responded to my tweet, most have dropped one or two days and yet were still working full time equivalent hours. In what other line of work would this be acceptable?
To me, it shows that in order to plan and assess effectively, teachers need equivalence between contact and preparation time. When I worked for a few years in ITT at MMU after the birth of my third child, every hour I taught was matched with an hour of planning and marking time. It meant that almost all my work could be completed within a 40-45 hour working week. Sure, some of those hours took place in the evenings or at weekends. Sure, the holidays were shorter – 8 rather than 13 weeks per year. But there was definitely a sense that the job was doable. There was time to think, to breathe, to use the loo. Of course, doing this in schools would have a massive impact on public finances – a direct 50/50 split would be prohibitively expensive (though Shanghai manage it). But the current PPA allowance for teachers is clearly so woefully inadequate that people simply can’t cope. They move to reduce their contact time in any way they can. Some go for promotion, working their way through the double hell of managing a department, to the pastures of senior management. Now don’t get me wrong. Senior managers work hard. They have long hours too and lots of stress. But if they need the toilet during the day, they can go. Some I know work from home when they have big projects like timetabling on, so they can do it without being distracted. Most would admit, that whatever the workload, it’s not as relentlessly inflexible as having classes. One said to me “I never really wanted to be an Assistant Head, but the marking was breaking me. I work really hard now. But I don’t feel like I’m drowning in the same way. And I get paid enough to be able to afford stress relief – more holidays and mini breaks.” Those who don’t want the promotion, or who can’t give the extra pound of flesh by serving middle management time, well they seem to go part time.
The teachers who contacted me spoke of having “scuppered” their career paths. They spoke of desperation. It’s a desperation I vividly remember. But we should not have to be part time in order to be able to fulfil a full time expectation. All teachers work unpaid days. Saturdays, Sundays, so-called holidays, countless evenings and so on. We all know it. We tut in sympathy and then shrug. It’s time we had a proper set of guidelines on how many hours is reasonable to expect and work back from there. Even if it sounds like a lot – 50 hours sounds like a lot, but for most teachers, it’s the bare minimum. A teacher working 50 hours a week term time is banking 10 hours a week over what would usually be considered full time work. 390 hours per year. It means that seven weeks of their 13 week holiday period is actually time off in lieu, leaving them with the average holiday entitlement of an ordinary full time employee. Let’s start to make these figure explicit. Let’s ask our unions and politicians to make it clear that 50 hours per week is the absolute maximum we expect of our teachers. No more. And then work out where our gaps are. Do we need to reduce contact time and employ more teachers to do this? Or change our data gathering, marking and meeting policies? Do we need to offer extra payments for trips or overtime beyond those hours? How much would it cost? Could we put a proposal forward with costings to government, saying “if you want to tackle workload AND teacher shortages, be clear about what full time work entails. Limit hours. Fund it.” The costs of training and losing staff are huge. The costs of recruiting are huge. The mental health costs to staff are huge. It’s time for us to stop. Not to drop hours and struggle because we can’t cope. It’s time to work to rule and I know this is hard. But if that doesn’t happen, things won’t change. They really won’t. Because the bottom line is that as long as you’re willing to bend and sacrifice yourselves and families, they’ll let you do it. Until you snap. Then they’ll get someone else to do it. Enough.