Cause for optimism?

Owen Hathway sees cause for optimism in recent Education initiatives announced by the Welsh Government

Last week there were two not-insignificant announcements relating to teacher’s workload.  Their importance was not only in the impact each could have but also in the recognition that action on this issue needs to be taken.

For years teaching unions have been banging the drum about unsustainable workload.  Warnings about how the burden being placed on teachers were hindering attainment levels, damaging teachers health and wellbeing and making the issues of staff recruitment and retention increasingly difficult were given sympathetic hearings, but ultimately little has been accomplished to address it.  It is fair to say successive Education Ministers and officials acknowledged that the existing demands on education professionals were excessive, but tangible proposals to get to grips with the concern were never forthcoming.  At the same time the initiatives, policies, pilots and upheavals that teachers, school leaders and support staff faced continued to mount.

Evidence of the problem, should it have been needed, was delivered in no uncertain terms with the publication of the education workforce survey.  The 10,000+ responses highlighted the problem with data showing that:

  • 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.

What we saw last week was the first tentative steps to tackling workload at both classroom and leadership level.  From a symbolic point of view this is important.  It shows the Welsh Government is not just agreeing we are at a tipping point, but are putting the wheels in motion to try and get it back under control.  Kirsty Williams AM and the Education Department deserve to be praised for that.

The first announcement centred on a pilot scheme to introduce business managers in schools.  For many headteachers the biggest frustration of the role is the administrative demands that it comes with.  School leaders are essentially the CEOs of a medium size business, organising everything from staffing and personal issues to building maintenance, from health and safety to fundraising and insurance cover.  These are all areas crucial to the day to day running of a school, but no matter how important and worthy they are, it doesn’t alter the fact it takes time away from a headteachers ability to best support their staff and pupils in securing the educational outcomes desired.

What’s being proposed is a pilot scheme targeted just towards the primary sector and only in a limited number of local authority areas.  It will be hugely important to monitor the outcomes of this pilot and determine if it is worth rolling out further across Wales.  If this has the outcomes the Welsh Government desire it certainly could take some of that workload burden off the shoulders of headteachers, allowing them to dedicate more time to delivering on their ethos and values for the school, which is the reason they got into the profession in the first instance.  A second positive consequence we could see is that it helps in the development of skills at leadership level.  We are often hearing of headteachers promoted into the role who do not feel equipped, trained or supported for the business administration that goes hand in hand with running a school.  They are very much left to their own devices in a new role, with new challenges and forced to learn on the job.  This investment may end up allowing headteachers to become better equipped for the position on a more reasonable and manageable learning curve.

Further to the above there was also last week the announcement of a guide for teachers and school leaders designed to reduce workload by busting some of the myths around what does and does not need to be done for pupil progress.  Unfortunately we are still seeing excessive workloads driven by expectations and demands put on schools due to the perception of what is required rather than what is actually the case.  More often than not, if indeed not at every turn, these perceptions do not add any value to school performance.  In fact they undermine it by taking time away from teaching and boosting workloads to levels that have consistently cost the teaching profession in Wales around 50,000 days a year through workload related ill-health.

Crucially there has been sector wide buy-in for these resources, backed not only by the Welsh Government and the four regional consortia, but also by the Education Workforce Council, local authorities in Wales, the trade unions and Estyn itself.  That universal approach should hopefully empower teachers and school leaders to resist undertaking work that does not need to be done and to finally be able to strip back responsibilities to a more manageable level, focusing on only those aspects of work which are having a positive impact on student development.

The Cabinet Secretary has stated at length that these initiatives are not the golden ticket to workload reform.  They will not resolve a problem that has developed over many years and has for so long been neglected by the different tiers of government in Wales.  It will take much more than this and we will have to continue to fight for better support.  However, this is action that has not been forthcoming in the past.  What is more, it is action that has, in part, been delivered in a cooperative and collective way.  That is not only hugely encouraging for the successes of these policies but also for the future of education in Wales.


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Owen Hathway is Wales Policy Officer at the National Education Union

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