Every time someone issues a report on teacher stress and workload, there is a predictable pattern. Some radio shock jock will pick it up and coo sympathetically as callers opine that everyone has to work but those lucky ducks get 13 weeks’ holiday, knock off at 3.30 every day and should stop their whinging.
As an analysis, it’s about as accurate as saying the world must be flat because, y’know, the horizon.
But that doesn’t stop the argument from being repeated, and not just by ill-informed members of the public. I’m sorry to say that journalists, who are supposed to do their homework before writing articles, are just as guilty of peddling the coddled teacher myth.
The reality is very different. Britain’s teachers are overworked, underpaid and put under so much stress that a small army of them leave the profession every year for another job. Assuming, that is, they are well enough to secure alternative employment. Last year some 3,750 of them were signed off on long-term sick leave due to pressure, anxiety, and mental illness. That number came via a freedom of information request submitted by the Liberal Democrats.
The figures show that one in 83 members of the profession is now out of action for the long haul, which is up 5 per cent on last year. All told, 1.3 million sick days were taken for reasons relating to stress and mental health over the past four years, including 312,000 in 2016-17.
Numbers like that will come as a surprise only to people who have no experience of living with and/or around members of the teaching profession.
As someone who has that experience, I can testify that the average figure of a 55-hour working week for classroom teachers, 60 hours for school leaders, actually looks to be a little on the low side.
Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not knock off at 3.30, or shortly after whenever the gates at their particular schools shut. Nor do they start a few minutes before they open.
They spend many hours before and after their pupils have left engaged in meticulous and detailed lesson-planning, form-filling, data collection, marking, assessments and dealing with whatever crap Whitehall mandarins dream up to dangle under the nose of the latest Education Secretary so they can make it look like they’re doing their jobs before they knock off early.
Thanks to the desperate desire of a succession of Education Secretaries – from both major parties I’m sorry to say – to be seen as “reforming” and “dedicated to improving standards”, today’s children undergo a blizzard of assessments.
Schools frequently have one or another of their teachers spending half their time not teaching but collating and processing data. Every child is transformed into a mass of data points with a granularity that would surprise all but the most diligent of forensic accountants.
And those holidays that radio talk show hosts and callers find so bothersome? They’re mythical. No teacher I know gets anything like the 13 weeks per year during which schools don’t hold lessons. They’d never get everything done if they took all that time off.
All this comes on top of, you know, attempting to educate classes full of 30 kids or more, which is a challenge most Britons would find quite beyond them. I know I would. I know most cabinet ministers would, although I’d dearly love to see Boris Johnson trying to keep control of a class full of stroppy 15-year-olds at an inner city comp. It might inject a much needed dose of humility into the corpulent buffoon that masquerades as Britain’s Foreign Secretary.
Now imagine trying to teach a class of 30 kids when you’re knackered, having spent half the previous night filling in forms. It makes me shudder just thinking about it. More to the point, it’s not good for our children. It really isn’t.
I don’t know about you, but as a parent I want my kids’ teachers to be relaxed and rested when they hit the classroom because that’s when people typically do their best work.
I’m not against pushing people to give their best, and I’m not against high expectations, and I’m not even against a bit of stress, which can help guard against complacency and keep everyone’s eyes on the ball. But what we have now is people trying to do a demanding job under a pressure that has become so extreme it is driving them off a cliff.
This is not the first such set of data highlighting the issue. Stories like this periodically pop up and when they do, people go to the Department for Education for comment, which inevitably responds by ignoring the problem and saying something like “teaching is a great job and we’re hiring more teachers than ever”. The latter of course is because it is losing more teachers than ever.
The system is already creaking. Unfortunately, it might have to break before anything really changes and sadly a lot of people will get broken in the process. Our children will also pay a heavy price.
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