By Will Sharkey
Moving to a four day working week will not only benefit teachers in the first instance by reducing their overall workload; it might also help slow down the mass-exodus expected to hit the teaching profession over the next five years. The four day working week is not only good for teachers, and good for the teaching profession, but also good for the pupils who are losing out by having exhausted, and inexperienced, teachers delivering lessons.
A recent study conducted by a major teachers’ union, has found that almost 40% of teachers do not expect to be in the profession within the next five years. The reason given is clear: workload. Anyone who has worked in a school will not be surprised by this finding given the astonishing, health-harming, rate of acceleration the increase in workload has had in recent years.
A teacher’s job does not, and has probably never, started nor stopped in the classroom. Each aspect of every lesson, from seating plans to content delivery, has to be meticulously organised before a pupil comes through that door. Combine this with the increase in pupil numbers, an increase in associated behaviour problems, the increasing complexity, and increasing prevalence, of childhood emotional-health issues, plus an increase in marking and it’s easy to see how the workload problem became an issue in the first place. More concerningly, it’s more likely to get worse than better any time soon: The increasing pace at which ‘whole school initiatives’ are being rolled out – zeitgeist-y schemes designed to help alleviate new problems and enable pupils to achieve their (academic) potential – is further cause for alarm.
While each of these initiatives are well-intentioned and absolutely valid, teachers are not given any additional time to complete the associated, time-labourious, tasks. This means that we either have to sacrifice planning time, or personal time; and yet this is a trade-off that teaches simply can’t make: staring blankly at a 30 teenagers with no plan tends not to be a good way to ensure good behaviour.
Many teachers joined the profession in virtue of a vocational calling, and those who heed this call will have a ‘character disposition’ which will bring with it a drive to do the best for those pupils in our care. Given this personal, emotional investment, it will not come as a surprise that discussions around teacher workload are often followed by discussions about the dreaded ‘teacher burnout’ (a phenomenon every Newly Qualified Teacher is aware of). One colleague compared working in a secondary school to ‘sprinting a marathon’. In my experience, this is a good, but concerning, analogy.
The NEU study highlighting the timebomb of teacher retention does not – probably for reasons of inducing despair – mention the difficulty in recruiting people into teaching. As well as people fleeing the profession in unsustainable numbers, we also have a chronic difficulty in getting people to become teachers in the first place. Teaching requires a degree-level qualification and (nearly always) some sort of formal, post-graduate training. The reward for the years of education, unpaid school placements, and unpaid ‘experience’ days is a starting salary of just under £24k. When we consider that teachers work as many hours per year as nurses, policemen and policewomen, but in fewer weeks and with lower pay, the ‘sprinting a marathon’ analogy might be made more accurate by adding ‘while tired and hungry’. Underpaid, overworked and stressed tend not to be a good mechanism for retaining staff, and it’s certainly not conducive for staff recruitment.
What will solve this problem? Surprisingly, more money is only part of the answer. In a recent study, almost half (47%) of all teachers interviewed were dissatisfied with the amount of leisure time they had and many who’d left were prepared to take a significant paycut to ‘escape’ the profession in favour of a career that had a lighter workload. The answer to the problem of teacher retention is clear: give teachers time to recover. Give them their leisure time.
How do we do this? Current Education Secretary, Damien Hinds MP, began his term by making noises about reducing teacher workload, but no tangible moves have yet been made. Further, schools have now cultivated an environment of overwork and are probably unlikely to start taking measures to amend this, given that they are the beneficiaries of this additional (unpaid) labour.
One material change we can make to help our teachers is move the profession to a four day working week. This move would clearly not be a solve-all solution to the workload problem, but reducing the working week, and consequently the overall amount of work expected of each teacher, would be one immediate way of reducing the amount of work that is currently being taken outside of working hours and into one’s personal time.
Moving to a four-day week would actually bring working time parity between teaching and other professions. If teachers currently work, on average, 50 hours over a 40 hour contracted week, then moving to a 32 hour week could see teachers work around 40 hours overall, all tasks considered. This would have the immediate effect of giving teachers something resembling a weekend. Importantly, in order to make sure that workloads remains the same across fewer days, more teachers will have to be recruited into schools – a task that would be made easier once this working transformation becomes standard practice.
Getting one’s life back is a good thing, not only for our teachers (who might be encouraged to stay in the profession), but for our pupils who would re-gain an energetic, vibrant, supportive, non-exhausted, stable adult in the classroom. This would immediately lead to better teaching, and, over time, more experienced teachers, better able to support less experienced teachers, which would, in turn, lead to better teaching…and so on.
Moving towards a four day week will not only see our teachers get the break they deserve, but it might start to help them get the break they need. This break is vital for our teachers, and vital for the integrity of the teaching profession. Perhaps more pressingly, it is vital for ensuring that our young people keep getting the high-standard of education teachers have been delivering through, and despite, the exhaustion. A four day working week is needed, and it is needed urgently, before the teaching profession itself reaches burnout.
 Perhaps most concerningly, we teachers have seen an increase in various administrative tasks including ‘monitoring’ exercises where a teacher has to demonstrate (with evidence) that they are sensitive to, and mindful of, each of the numerous ‘whole school initiatives’ idealistic headteachers and governments have implemented.