The big issues facing the education workforce

Owen Hathway examines the results of Wales’ first national education survey

Last week the Education Workforce Council published the first ever National Education Survey.  For a number of years teaching unions, and indeed others interested in seeing a full picture of the state of the sector, have argued for such a survey to be conducted.  The Westminster Government, which has certainly not been seen as a friend to the teaching profession in recent years, has conducted these regularly, albeit at times only publishing the results when dragged kicking and screaming to do so.  Yet despite this, successive Welsh Education Ministers have held steadfast against conducting a similar piece of research in Wales.


With the appointment of Kirsty Williams, and the commitment to an annual workload survey in the Welsh Lib Dem manifesto, this has changed.  The current Cabinet Secretary for Education and the Welsh Government certainly do deserve credit for following through on that commitment.  Furthermore what was produced was ultimately a far more in-depth and substantive piece of work than that which was originally outlined.  In addition to the aforementioned parties the EWC itself also deserve praise for what we have brought forward.


That said there was not much of a fanfare from the Welsh Government around the launch.  One reason this has potentially been given, for want of a better description, a ‘soft launch’ is that much of it makes for uncomfortable, if perhaps unsurprising, reading.  From a school teacher’s perspective and by extension the perspectives of pupils and parents, there are some hugely concerning headline figures, such as:

  • 78.1% of teachers felt workload was an issue.
  • 88.3% of school teachers disagreed or disagreed strongly that they were able to effectively manage their existing workloads.
  • Full-time school teachers revealed they regularly work an average of 50.7 hours during a working week.
  • 33.6% of school teachers indicated they intended to leave the profession in the next three years.


These figures do not paint the picture of a sustainable workforce.  That a third of teachers are intending to leave the role within the next three years, and such a significant proportion of the entire profession feel unable to cope should set the alarm bells ringing within the DfE.  Quite clearly this can’t continue and a lack of action risks sending us to a crisis point.


Unions have been warning that the situation was unworkable for some time.  The anecdotal evidence and case studies could fill the shelves of Cardiff library.  We also know from research carried out by my own employer that this has had a dramatic and disturbing impact on the mental health of the teaching profession with an average of over 50,000 teaching days being lost every year due to stress related illnesses.  What we now have is the concrete baseline statistics that back up that view.  All of this of course is before we ask teachers to do even more with regards to the big changes they are facing.  So what of those changes, the survey also offers some insights there:

  •         45.5% of school teachers stated they were not very or not at all familiar with the new Welsh Government Digital Competency Framework.
  •         71.1% of supply teachers and 38.6% of school teachers indicated they were not very or not at all familiar with the content and recommendations in Professor Donaldson’s report which forms the basis of the new Welsh curriculum.


The above statistics should encourage everyone to pause for thought when considering the effectiveness of implementing policies in the education sector in Wales.  Too often in the past we have seen well-meaning and sometimes well-thought through ideas fall by the wayside because they have not been articulated to the profession properly; they have not taken into account the impact on other areas of work, they have not been adequately resourced, they have not gained the confidence of the teaching profession or they have simply not been given the time to show their worth.  The views expressed here suggest we are at risk of making the same mistakes with policies that have, by and large, received universal buy in from stakeholders.  There has been little dissent within the education sector about the principles and objectives of the Donaldson review.  The Successful Futures document was widely welcomed but a number of people have publicly and privately been raising the fear that the rush to deliver could mean the failure to do so successfully.  Getting this done right is more important than getting this done right now.  The existing holes in knowledge and understanding around these key issues, especially in relation to the Digital Competency Framework which is already in existence, should be given a lot of consideration.


I don’t write these words to berate the Welsh Government, the Department for Education and certainly not the Cabinet Secretary.  The workload burden and morale issues that are evident were not developed on her watch.  Nonetheless they now exist within her landscape.  The most important thing about this survey is not to carp on about the problems it has exposed.  The results are not something to use for blame but as a point at which we can all ask the big questions about how we react.  How can we encourage more professionals to want to remain in their teaching roles?  How can we reduce the workload burden, especially the administrative side which does little to improve standards?  How do we ensure the timing for delivery of the new curriculum is such that the sector is on board instead of attempting to shoe horn new ideas in blindly?  These are the debates the survey must spark but that can only happen if those who commissioned it put it at the heart of their thinking.  The responses tell us the home truths we least want to hear but perhaps the messages that must be given the most attention.




Owen Hathway is Wales Policy Officer for the National Union of Teachers

6 thoughts on “The big issues facing the education workforce

  1. The point about many teachers being unaware of Welsh Government policy does not surprise me. I have found myself on more than one occasion having to remind teachers in Wales that education is devolved. Often when they are in the middle of a complaint about how the UK government is making life hard for them.

    This makes me wonder about the quality of the communication work undertaken by both the Welsh Government and representatives of teaching professional to those in the classroom. One would think a job of work remains to be done.

  2. I suggest that more is made of bringing in outside bodies ( NGO’s,etc) by teachers to add to the detailed wider ‘political’ knowledge teachers more than ever need to offer our children.

    Successful Futures (2015), Professor Graham Donaldson’s independent review of the national curriculum in Wales, calls on all our children and young people to be “ethical, informed citizens”.
    Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship (ESDGC) seeks to give learners at all stages of education an understanding of the impact of their choices on other people, the economy and the environment.

    NGO’s like Sustainable Wales are well placed to help Wales take this progressive legislation forward at a grass-roots level, acting as a practical enabler for a roll-out in Wales.

    International and Welsh political context:
    The United Nations General Assembly have replaced the Millennium Development Goals which expired in 2015 with 17 Sustainable Development Goals – ‘Transforming Our World – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

    The SDGs outline a blueprint for development priorities until 2030. They include 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues, from ending poverty and hunger to improving health and education, reducing inequality, and combating climate change.
    (Goal 12 is to ensure sustainable consumption and production and Goal 13 focuses on climate change and decarbonisation. The Welsh Government has selected these two key areas to focus on regarding our global responsibility.)

    The Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (May 2015) is legislation to create a unique statutory duty on public services in Wales to deliver sustainable outcomes.
    The community sector has an important role to play in championing and demonstrating these goals, sharing and collaborating with others.
    The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 is a commitment to position Wales as a low carbon, green economy, ready to adapt to the impacts of climate chang

  3. I was asked on twitter for answers to the questions I posed but 140 characters really wasn’t enough, so here are some brief thoughts.

    How can we encourage more professionals to want to remain in their teaching roles? How can we reduce the workload burden, especially the administrative side which does little to improve standards?

    Clearly the biggest issue is workload. We have to tackle the levels teachers are currently dealing with. In the first instance it is looking at the unnecessary work that is being done on the administrative side of thinks, and in particular in terms of simply evidencing lessons. Some teachers may teach a particular lesson for one hour. However when it comes to the planning for that lesson, diversifying the work along set standards to recognise the different abilities of the pupils, marking the work and offering feedback, evidencing that lessons outcomes, reflecting on the practice etc. that one lesson could be anything up to 4 or 5 hours work. That can’t be the best time spent for a teacher. Often, particularly in a primary setting much of the workload revolves around cutting pictures out and sticking them in a book so that if a local authority challenge adviser or estyn inspector comes around that evidence is provided. Again this is not the best use of anyone’s time. We have to cut back on the requirements on that sort of thing, and indeed actually articulate better from Estyn, councils, consortia and the Welsh Government about where and when it is not needed.

    The Westminster Government, Ofstead and trade unions produced a very positive leaflet doing just that in England. I know there are some in the Welsh Government open to something similar here and I think producing it would go a long way. (Westminster’s pamphlet is here for information

    Beyond that it is a case of making the profession a valued part of our public services. I think the language of the current cabinet secretary and her predecessor has been positive but there still remains a blame culture. Teachers need to feel part of the reforms rather than have them imposed on them. The curriculum, in terms of the Donaldson work and the thinking behind the pioneer schools network has bucked the trend of the usual approach and has really focused on making practitioners partners in new ideas. That has to become the norm not the exception.

    Of course continued access to professional development, something we always talk about but seem unable to deliver is a key part of this. People who feel fulfilled and see themselves growing in their careers will always want to continue in those posts.

    How do we ensure the timing for delivery of the new curriculum is such that the sector is on board instead of attempting to shoe horn new ideas in blindly?

    I think we have to reflect on the position we are in and what that tells us about timing. Truth be told we are asking an entire profession to do something completely contrary to what they have been instructed to do for the best part of a decade. From being micromanaged to being masters of their own curriculum will take a huge shift in approach and a change of skill set. The appetite for this change is undoubtedly out there. I question if the right skill set is at present. We are in the process of adapting the ITT offer to better reflect this new approach to the curriculum and a new style of teaching. It may be painful for the Welsh Government to publicly say their timescales were too ambitious and there has to be a pause but ultimately I think that short term delay is worth it to get this right long term. I would delay for at least a year, potentially longer. Teachers, as the survey shows, are not fully prepared for this change. They are not fully aware of even what the recommendations are. Feedback from pioneer sessions indicate many pioneer schools did not even know at the outset that they were supposed to be leading the change. Giving greater time for the existing profession to up-skill and get more fluent with what is to come is important. More still is getting to the point that the next generation of teachers we are training have the reflective and research skills that go more hand in hand with what was imagined by the Successful Futures vision.

  4. Cennydd:

    That is a valid point. I’ve come across teachers who are still unaware of all the issues around devolution, although I would say the vast, vast majority appreciate that the policies that determine their approach is determined by the Welsh Government. Perhaps one reason for the blurred lines is that while the WG sets the policy agenda it is the Westminster Government who pay their wages. It may be that with the devolution of pay and conditions the emphasis will shift for those who have still not fully comprehended the current situation.

    As for the communications from the Welsh Government and teaching representatives, again I think that is a valid point. To an extent you can only do so much. I know from experience that there are campaigns that we at the NUT have run where there have been numerous focused approaches to engaging the profession. On site school meetings, email pushes, surveys, posters, magazine articles, media coverage etc but still a noticeable section of the profession remain closed off to the arguments. We have to think of new and innovative ways of communicating but certainly it is hard to cut through at times and I guess that is in part a reflection of the workload pressures making it hard for teachers to focus beyond the immediate and the weak nature of the Welsh media. I can’t speak for the Welsh Government but I am sure they will share some of those frustrations. I do think at times communication has been poor but that is a hit and miss approach rather than a blanket criticism. Oddly enough I thought the curriculum reforms through Professor Donaldson’s work were an example of the WG making a real effort to take the profession with them yet these results suggest it wasn’t quite as successful as I, and no doubt others, believed they were.

  5. Margaret,

    I would welcome partnerships with NGOs as a way of widening the debate and knowledge in schools as well as a way of finding partnerships that help deliver education in an ever resource light way. Of course these relationships need to be measured by what they offer teachers and pupils and perhaps approached on a case by case basis. There is certainly a lot of existing examples of schools doing just that and there is no reason why that should not continue. Indeed as you note, reflecting on some of the recommendations of the Donaldson review it makes perfect sense.

  6. Someone has to play the role of cumudgeon. I wish it wasn’t me.
    1. We have huge problems in Wales with basic numeracy and literacy – in either language. Can we tackle these before getting too enthused about having NGOs in to indoctrinate the kids?
    2. 50 hours a week is not unusual in today’s workforce. Teachers are not unusual in working that much and they have longer holidays than most. I have no doubt they are subjected to an excess of administration and the lack of support from parents is lamentable in many areas. Still, the fact that so many can’t cope combined with the fact that they don’t even know where policy is coming from strongly suggests they are just not up to the job. Surely what is needed is higher pay signalling higher status and esteem to recruit more capable people – and let the third who want to leave do so. The Welsh government should just set a 15 per cent pay premium over England, like the London allowance, They can afford that. Then tell the teachers the administrative nonsense will be progressively scaled back as standards improve. It is only there as a (ineffective) response to past school failures. Good education requires good teachers and the brute fact is many of ours aren’t good enough.

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