Addressing Teacher Workload and Conditions of Service in NI

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 January 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

It is generally agreed that teaching is becoming a more difficult job year on year. Problems of pupil behaviour, rising expectations by parents and increased class sizes because of budget cuts, have all combined to produce a marked deterioration in teacher’s working life experience. While in England it is generating a crisis in teacher recruitment, here in Northern Ireland we have a deteriorating industrial relations climate due to discontent with pay, workload and quality of working conditions.  

NAS/UWT in their instructions to members in Northern Ireland on current industrial action state;

“Evidence shows that teachers worn out from long working hours and overburdened with excessive workload cannot work as effectively as they would wish, to do the best for the children and young people they teach. Teaching is a highly demanding and challenging job and teachers need working conditions and working practices to support them in providing the best education they can for the pupils they teach. Where working practices support a work/life balance, there is less stress, absence and illness and increased morale and motivation and improved outcomes.”

On workload, ATL’s view is that current management proposals on workload are;

“... light on hard, tangible, definite ‘product’ that will impact positively on the working lives of teachers. Measures suggested, similar to those arising from the English Workload Challenge, would be welcome. However, the experience in England and Wales is that awareness of the measures agreed ‘on the ground’ at school level is low, ‘stickability’ of measures uncertain and ‘policing’ arrangements to embed the recommendations patchy or non-existent.”

These ideas on workload amelioration proposed in England seem to offer a sensible way forward on teacher workload without sacrifice of principle or good practice and have been endorsed by the main teaching unions. Surely they are worth exploring here in Northern Ireland? If accountability measures can be enforced system-wide, why not then agreed workload practices?

The ideas referred to by ATL come from The Department of Education report on reducing teacher workload in England published last year.

“On 26 March 2016, we published the reports from three independent review groups set up to address the biggest issues emerging from the Workload Challenge – ineffective marking, use of planning and resources, and data management.”

 The report set out clear principles and made recommendations to be taken at every level in the school system. The aim was to challenge and remove practices which add unnecessary burdens and thereby to allow teachers to focus on providing the best education to their pupils, and have time to spend on their own professional development. A number of examples of good practice were included highlighting especially the benefits of collaborative planning.

Research into the problem showed that teachers identified three main areas that can lead to unnecessary workload, namely marking, planning and data management. In conjunction with the report, a poster/flyer on teacher workload with key recommendations from the review was subsequently circulated to all schools and endorsed by ASCL, NAHT, NAS/UWT, ATL and NUT.

Key messages to schools included;

  • That all marking should be meaningful, manageable and motivating.
  • That it should advance pupil progress and outcomes and should not confuse quantity of feedback with quality. Both written and oral feedback should be used to promote learning.
  •  To avoid excessively detailed daily or weekly plans and encourage collaboratively produced schemes of work.  
  • To reduce unnecessary duplication of work by ensuring that lesson plans be given the proportionate status they merit, and no more. Planning together also needs to be accompanied by a regular and professional discussion which focuses on the outcomes for pupils.
  • Teaching approaches should not involve teachers doing more work than pupils. This can become a disincentive for pupils to accept challenges and take responsibility for improving their work.
  • Following inspection if marking is identified as an area for improvement, recommendations should not drive unnecessary workload for teachers.
  • On data collection schools should be clear as to why this data is being collected, and how will it help improve the quality of provision?  It should provide evidence of the monitoring of teaching and learning and its link to teachers’ performance management and the teachers’ standards, but this should be the information that the school uses routinely and not additional evidence.

Another strand of The Department of Education’s attempt to address the stress and workload issues in England is to advocate and facilitate flexible working for the profession. By flexible working they mean; part-time working - working less than full-time hours, job sharing - two or more people do one job and split the hours, compressed hours - working full-time hours but over fewer days, staggered hours - where the employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers (dependent on individual situations) and home working.

Here in Northern Ireland, as I said above, we do not have the same recruitment issues as in England, but, as I have commented in other articles in this series, the teaching profession is showing alarming signs of stress and dysfunction. Flexible working could potentially address these problems and also some budget issues for schools in terms of retaining subjects on the timetable which cannot support a full-time teacher, thereby reducing staffing costs.

 Both here and in England many teachers want to work flexibly but often can’t because the school system isn’t set up to offer the kind of flexibility today’s professionals need.

School leaders, however sympathetic, often can’t offer flexible roles due to factors like potential increase in costs and management time, difficulty of managing timetables and parental expectations of the continuity of teacher in their children’s classroom.

In England, the plans hope to address these concerns and increase the number of part-time or job-sharing posts at all levels within the school system and expand the range of flexible opportunities in schools. It is argued that flexible working can also help achieve gender equality in schools by allowing women to return to teaching on a flexible basis (for example after having children) and improve the career progressions of women by offering more flexible opportunities at senior levels within the school system. Offering a wider range of flexible and part-time posts could additionally help schools solve some recruitment challenges by giving them access to a higher number of qualified teachers, including those who can’t consider working full-time hours at present or who are looking for a working pattern that suits their personal circumstances.

Patterns of working have changed in many other walks of working life to respond to changes in society and employment. Maybe it is time for education to face these realities and reimage teaching accordingly.


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This article is correct at 15/01/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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