In 1991, the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Act sought to redefine the contractual terms under which teachers were employed. The context for this change was an increasing level of government control and intervention over schools due to a perceived need to address low standards in many state comprehensive schools. The Act introduced, for the first time, a specified number of hours and days for which teachers could be directed to work; 1265 hours over 195 days (about 6.5 hours a day, on average). The term ‘directed’ held a particular significance in the new terms and conditions. It was defined as meaning an employers right to specify when a teacher should be working and what they should be doing during this time. This cap on directed working meant that schools could not instruct teachers to work on 170 days of the year and must ensure that work was reasonably evenly spread over the other 195 days, and should not exceed the 1265 maximum.
The new School Teachers Pay and Conditions (STPC) also made provision for un-directed work, that is all the other things teachers might be expected to do but did not have to take place at work or at a specified time of the week. Predominantly, these tasks were believed to be planning and marking. What was, and is, misunderstood about such tasks is that there is no limit to what schools can instruct teachers to do in this un-directed time. The term ‘directed’ is possibly somewhat to blame for this misunderstanding as schools could direct teachers to do work, but as long as they did not specify where or when this work should be carried out it would not count as a directed activity. The 1265 limit was never, therefore, a cap on working hours but instead a protection over the right of teachers to flexible working, in the sense that some of the tasks they were asked to undertake could be completed at a time and place of their choosing.
In 2002, the Labour government embarked on a significant remodelling of the school workforce. A major element of these changes was the enhanced role of Teaching Assistants who were seen by the government as an untapped resource. The changes to teachers’ working conditions were levered in on the promise of a significant increase in funding for schools. Teachers were also to be given protected time for planning, preparation and assessment (which became known as PPA), which equated to 10% of their teaching load. Depending on your point of view, PPA was either an attempt to replace qualified teachers in the classroom for some lessons with (cheaper) unqualified assistants, or a means of supporting teachers improve the quality of education through creating time for planning and marking. In reality, this change did reduce contact time for primary colleagues in particular, but made less impact on secondary colleagues who already usually had ‘free periods’ on their timetable. Arguably, attempts to limit the amount of cover teachers should provide and removing the right of schools to ask teachers to invigilate exams had more impact on workload for secondary teachers.
The 1265 and PPA rules have remained in the STPC and continue to be the main contractual ‘protections’ for teachers from excessive working hours. However, we might question whether they have been effective in this regard, or at least continue to be in the current climate. The evidence would suggest not. The DfE’s own research shows that workload pressures are unsustainable for many teachers (here) and Ofsted have released a report this week which concludes that teachers are ‘stressed and anxious’ about their jobs (here). Whatever the reasons for this problem, it would appear that the protections in place for teachers are not working. Of course, contractual terms and conditions are only one possible way of limiting working hours, pressures and anxiety, but they are an important one. Why are they not working in this regard and what better alternatives exist?
The main problem with the 1265 limit is that it appears to be absolute but is not. Firstly, this is because it only covers directed activities. These activities (teaching, tutoring, meetings, parents evenings) are quite easily contained within the 1265 hours, which equates to about 32.5 hours per week. Most schools run a 25 hour p/w timetable. They usually register students every day. There will be a cycle of meetings teachers may be asked to attend (1-2 hours a week maximum). There will be the occasional parents evening, clubs to run and supervision duties before or after school. These activities can be scheduled without difficulty with an hour or two to spare each week. Arguably, without the 1265 cap, schools might increase directed activities. For example, they might extend the school week so that students are taught for 30 hours instead of 25. This would be feasible given the pressure schools are under to improve outcomes. The cap might therefore be effective in limiting scheduled teaching time. However, it is not effective at limiting overall working hours as much of the ‘overload’ teachers are experiencing is in relation to the un-directed activities required of them. This is explained well in a 2014 ‘Secret Teacher’ article in The Guardian (here). The (anonymous) author demonstrates how a teacher’s working week can easily exceed 55 hours, with less than half of this actually being time spent with pupils. There is no limit on this un-directed activity. Furthermore, with a limit on how many hours schools can require teachers to teach, there is a tendency to increase those tasks for which there is no specified limit in order to meet increasing accountability pressures on schools. This was demonstrated in the ‘race to the bottom’ (in workload terms) to make teachers spend ever increasing amounts of time writing detailed comments in children’s books. Ironically, the 1265 cap may unintentionally limit improvement in standards as an additional five hours of teaching a week may be a more effective use of teachers’ time than an extra five hours marking (and might reduce pressure on teachers struggling to deliver more content-heavy qualifications).
The boundary between directed and un-directed activity is also increasingly blurred. This is evident in the number of teachers who ‘choose’ to spend time during their lunch breaks, after school and in school holidays providing additional teaching and one-to-one tuition for students. The STPC makes clear that teachers cannot be directed to work during 170 days of the year colloquially known as the ‘school holidays’. And yet, apparently increasing numbers of revision seminars and catch-up events abound. It is quite possible that many teachers impose such additional work on themselves, out of a sense of wanting to do everything they can for the students, but if this is the case, should the school be allowing them to do so? It is also possible that schools exert pressure on teachers to run such activities, either subtly by praising those that ‘go the extra mile’ or promoting those who do so, or explicitly by asking teachers to let senior leaders know what day of the week their lunchtime revision sessions for Year 11 will be.
The guaranteed PPA time is also a weak protection. What use is a protected 2.5 hours each week if un-directed tasks have increased by 10 hours? In addition, it provides no protection against schools increasing the amount of time teachers must teach by extending the school day. For example, a school running a week of 25, one-hour lessons would provide 3 non-contact periods for teachers (2.5 hours rounded up to 3 lessons), whereas an increase in the school week to 27 hours would still mean 3 non-contact periods, but an extra 2 hours teaching.
If we accept that the contractual protections for excessive working hours are insufficient, what might we enhance or replace them with?
One possible solution is to impose an absolute limit on working hours and to make all work ‘directed’ in the sense of specifying when and where teachers will work for the entirety of their contracted hours. How might this look?
Let’s imagine a school which requires teachers to be present, on site, from 8.30am to 6.00pm for five days a week. Given a 30 minute lunch break, the working day would be 9 hours, meaning a 45 hour week. There would then be provision for directed evening events (parents evenings, open evenings) totaling no more than 20 hours a year. The school then requires teachers to be in work for three of the thirteen weeks of ‘school holidays’ per year (meaning a 42 week year – 10 weeks of holidays). Importantly, teachers are mandated to carry out no additional work outside of these working hours. These arrangements would mean an average working week of 45.5 hours (substantially less than at present); a cap set at 1910 hours a year. Calculated as an average over 47 weeks (the normal working year for many professions) would give a figure of just under 41 hours per week, which is broadly in line with what many full-time workers would expect to work.
This is just an example, and you can play around with the figures. However, the point is that such a model has the benefit of being absolute. Whereas the job of teaching is currently dictated by how much work you are given (and you struggle to find the time to get it all done), the onus would now be on the employer to find the most efficient way of employing teachers’ time to maximise standards. There can be no arms race whereby standards are improved at the expense of teachers’ wellbeing. Given this restriction on the school, we now start to consider the opportunity cost of the various ways we could deploy teachers. We may indeed decide that it makes more sense to ask teachers to teach for longer, perhaps 27 hours a week instead of 22. This is where their skills might best be deployed. To achieve this, you may significantly reduce or even cease the requirement for marking books as the benefit of more teaching exceeds the lost benefit of marking. These freedoms may lead to many research opportunities to establish the relative benefits of various models of teachers working patterns. It may in fact result that instead of reducing educational standards due to teachers working fewer hours, standards are increased as we learn more about the most effective workforce models possible within the resources available.
An argument against such an approach would be around the loss of work flexibility for teachers, particularly those with young families. I would argue that this need not be the case. There is a framework within the law for flexible working requests and employers are required to consider these. Flexible working arrangements could be considered for all those teachers who have legitimate reasons to ask for the right to complete work at a time and in a place more convenient to their personal circumstances.
The most obvious advantage of a ‘fixed and capped’ working hours model is the protection and certainty it provides to teachers. Additional protections might be added to ensure that these terms are adhered to by both parties. Teachers might be obliged to report any hours worked over and above the limits, for example if they have a stack of coursework projects which need marking and they have not kept on top of, and employers obliged to monitor this and act if teachers repeatedly exceed their working hours. Schools might also be asked to report such data through the workforce census so that patterns can be monitored nationally and support provided for schools who fail to manage teachers’ working hours appropriately.
Such a change would be very challenging for school leaders, no longer able to achieve school improvement at the expense of teachers’ health and personal life. However, it might also be liberating to know that there is an even playing field across the sector and there is no longer a temptation or pressure to drive staff ever harder to keep up with the better performing school down the road. The key to success would be in the school’s ability to get the best, not the most, out of its teachers.
Working excessive hours has become part of our identity as teachers. I suspect that teachers themselves would be among the loudest voices in criticising reform to their working conditions, worried that their students’ education might suffer. I believe it would, in fact, be improved. They might also worry about an erosion of their professional status, after all we are committed to serve not to clock in and get paid by the hour. Sadly, our status as professionals is already weak and successive Governments have eroded the autonomy we once enjoyed. We should refuse to be work-horses, giving endlessly of ourselves until we are put out to pasture. Being a professional teacher should mean we are raised high, not worn down. This can only happen if we radically re-think how we work and how much of ourselves we should reasonable be expected to give.
Footnote: I haven’t drawn much from the following article, but would recommend it as an historical overview of the erosion of teachers’ professional status:
Gillard D (2005) Tricks of the Trade: whatever happened to teacher professionalism? http://www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/23tricks.html