Mon, 11 December 2023

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Learn to listen: Teaching union urges Government to engage

ATL | Association of Teachers and Lecturers

5 min read Partner content

The President of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Kim Knappett, warns that an overwhelming workload is plunging the teaching profession into a recruitment and retention crisis.

The teaching profession has long been considered an attractive career choice, and with a plethora of schemes facilitating entry, demand should be booming.

However, the opposite is true, with record levels of teachers leaving their jobs due to an overwhelming workload and rocketing stress levels.

This has gained some recognition in Westminster, with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan last year launching the Workload Challenge, which sought the views of those working in schools on how ‘unproductive and unnecessary’ tasks could be eradicated.

The survey prompted a huge response, and yet according to industry insiders there has been little change on the ground as a result.

This is why the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the union for educational professionals that was established in 1884, is urging the Government to take action.

According to ATL President Kim Knappett: “Last year the Government put their workload survey out and almost 44,000 people responded, which was really amazing. Unfortunately, as far as most teachers are concerned there has been no response to that at all. People took that time out, gave the information and are now finding that nothing has changed.” 

Ms Knappett, who is also a teacher herself, identifies spending “a lot of time doing needless tasks”, as one of the main sources of grievance.

“Teachers are spending huge amounts of time inputting data that nobody wants or ever reads; the same data into two or three systems, because the systems don’t speak to each other. They are doing a lot of work that doesn’t actually impact their day-to-day interactions with the students.

“Often I speak to teachers who say they are absolutely exhausted but they still need to prepare for tomorrow’s lesson because they have already spent three hours recording things rather than preparing work for students.

“We are seeing a large number of people being driven to the edge.”

This issue was brought to life in a poignant article by ATL’s General Secretary, Mary Bousted.

She wrote of a young man she had encountered who was “worried about his partner, a primary school teacher. Increasingly, when he came home from work, he found her crying on the kitchen floor.”    

Ms Bousted added that she heard these kinds of stories “just too often”.                                                    

For Ms Knappett, the pressure has been increasing steadily over recent years and she identifies a lack of trust as the driver of this burgeoning bureaucracy.

She says: “It has come, not from direct instructions, but by the whole approach of Government and Ofsted, which is that they don’t trust teachers. They don’t trust us to do anything unless we have got a record of doing it.

“Teachers are trained to assess students every minute of every day. But they are asking us to constantly record that and there just isn’t the time to do it.”

The implications for those working in education of this overbearing culture, both personally and professionally are significant, Ms Knappett adds.  

“We have exhausted our teachers to the point where they can’t perform well in the classroom because they are so tired. Or if they are not physically tired they are stressed because they are waiting for someone to knock on the door and say they haven’t filled out some paperwork.”

For the profession as a whole this has impacted hugely on recruitment and retention, and has all but wiped out the experienced, older generation of staff within schools.

“Firstly, people aren’t coming into the profession and we are having difficulty attracting them,” Ms Knappett says, “despite that fact that there are now a multitude of ways to enter.

“But more importantly we are not retaining them and when you meet young teachers they don’t come in for the long haul now. They come in and they teach for a few years and then they go on to do something else. When I look round staffrooms there just aren’t people who have been teaching for ten, fifteen, twenty years anymore.”

It is for these reasons that ATL is calling on the Government to engage more closely with those on the ground.

The union’s recently launched Work-Life campaign aims to empower education professionals to establish a healthier approach to work:  

According to Ms Knappett, the organisation is “really trying to get our members to stand up and speak out in their own workplaces against excessive workload. It is about getting teachers to evaluate their own workloads and say ‘I’m not going to do that because it doesn’t impact on my students,’ or ‘I have entered that data once and I am not going to do it for a second and third time into different systems.’

“It is also about encouraging teachers to get together and say ‘in order for us to teach and for learning to happen efficiently in this institution, these are the things we are going to do and these are the things we are not going to do,’ and to have that negotiation with management.”

But for this to make an impact, she adds, there must also be a change of approach from policymakers.

The ATL President concludes: “Winston Churchill said ‘it takes courage to stand up and speak,’ and I think the profession needs to do that. But the Government also needs to have the courage to sit down and listen.”

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