Alan Smithers: Stop spinning the stats and hire more teachers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Government is wriggling on the hook of teacher workload. Faced with solid evidence from its own review body that teachers are working more than 50 hours a week, it has variously suggested that the profession be remodelled; that tasks be transferred to assistants; and that standards, not workload, are the issue. Any action, it has said, will have to await consultation, the next Comprehensive Spending Review and some pilots in pathfinder schools.

The Government is wriggling on the hook of teacher workload. Faced with solid evidence from its own review body that teachers are working more than 50 hours a week, it has variously suggested that the profession be remodelled; that tasks be transferred to assistants; and that standards, not workload, are the issue. Any action, it has said, will have to await consultation, the next Comprehensive Spending Review and some pilots in pathfinder schools.

But the solution is obvious: more teachers, so that each has fewer and smaller classes. The Government boasts that the teaching force is at its highest since 1998, but ignores that this only returns the pupil-teacher ratio to what it was 20 years ago. It has sanctioned 10,000 more teachers by 2006, but this amounts to less than half a teacher per school. The review body itself did not propose, or even appear to consider, more teachers. This is so odd that it must have been hobbled by its remit, which stresses affordability. Without more teachers, it is almost impossible to see how its recommendations for free periods, reducing term-time hours and limits to covering for absent colleagues could be met.

It is true that some tasks, such as photocopying, collecting dinner money and classroom displays, could be handled by assistants, and it is good that schools will have more of them. But almost all the activities contributing to the review body's estimates of working hours, from class contact to staff meetings, require teachers to be present. Shifting even 20 per cent of the work to assistants, as the Government envisages, seems highly optimistic.

Understaffing is acute in primary schools, where teachers have almost no free periods. To raise provision to the level of secondary schools would mean an extra 62,000 teachers. To take both sectors up to the 1990 level of secondary schools would require an extra 108,000. One of the reasons for the success of independent schools is that they have proportionately twice as many teachers as maintained schools.

Whichever way you look at it, maintained schools seem short of teachers. But the Government is baulking at the cost: £1.8bn a year to raise the staffing level in primary schools, £3.25bn to raise it in secondary schools as well.

The Government is also taking refuge in the difficulty of filling existing posts. But a new comparative study, Teachers' Professional Lives: A View from Nine Industrialised Countries, by the American Council for Basic Education, suggests that teacher shortage in England has more to do with retention than recruitment. In primary schools, there is no difficulty filling the training places: the problem is holding on to the teachers. The review body cites our finding that 74 per cent of leavers from primary schools, and 54 per cent from secondary schools, gave workload as the main reason.

By funding schools to employ more teachers, the Government would set up a virtuous circle. Teaching would become more satisfying. Teachers would be less likely to leave. More would join. In this scenario there is no need for the bureaucracy of a 35-hour week or guaranteed free periods. Overload would take care of itself. But it would cost, and the Government feels it can harness taxpayers against whingeing teachers. Already great play has been made of apparently long holidays. Account must be taken, however, not just of annual hours, but the intensity of involvement. In most occupations, however hectic, it is possible to take a breather. In teaching, especially with current staffing levels, there is no let-up from the time the pupils set foot in the school to the time they go home.

That is why it is essential to have more teachersto bring a better balance to the working week. It is likely that teachers in independent schools work just as hard as those in maintained schools, but because the demands are perceived as reasonable they tend not to count hours. Recruitment and retention are easier, helped by the continual inflow from the state sector.

The Government's interest in workload seems mainly aimed at heading off a revolt by teachers. With promises of more teaching assistants and cutting red tape, and some finely-spun statistics, it may succeed. But it is doubtful whether the lot of pupils or teachers will be much improved. Again, it seems, the Government is more concerned with the politics than education.

The writer is the Sydney Jones Professor of Education and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

education@independent.co.uk

Comments