The work of teachers has changed radically over the past 30 years, the result of the Education Reform Act of 1988. This act triggered a number of changes to the education sector at all levels, including schools as organisations, and to the role and activities of teachers. As these shifts gathered pace, there was an emerging understanding on the part of policy-makers and politicians that workload was increasing and causing serious issues regarding the sustainability of teacher work. The result was the development of the ‘Transforming the School Workforce: Pathfinder Project’ and from this to a national shift in the responsibilities of teachers, including photocopying, taking in money for trips etc, becoming activities for which teachers were no longer responsible. However, looking at the data below from the government’s own workload surveys, the overall average hours worked by teachers (no consistent data made available for special schools!!) did not significantly fall, remaining roughly constant, with around 50 hours for secondary teachers, and slightly more for primary teachers. However, workload shifted significantly upwards in the 2013 and 2016 surveys, although due to a new methodology for the national workload survey (hence the columns being in grey), the government claimed that the extra hours might be due to the shift in how the data are captured, and therefore could not be compared to earlier years. It is up to the reader to decide if this is a sustainable argument.
The data available for 2013 and 2016 show a situation where teaching (hours in brackets) has become a minority pursuit, in secondary a mere 39% of time, in primary 42%, though these are averages from roughly 3,500 participants, and there is obviously large variation in individual experiences. More important than the proportion, perhaps, is the fact that with teaching taking up most of the time available to classroom teachers during the hours when students are present, the majority of their work must be displaced to periods before and after the main school day.
Underlying this discussion is an assumption about the nature of time. As might be expected, the workload of teachers is quantified in ‘clock-time’. Similarly, schools tend to structure their weeks in the same way, the timetable, the work of both teachers and students being gauged and managed through clock-time. This might not be surprising as any relatively large organisation needs to be able to work in a way that is coherent and understood by all. However, clock-time is in many ways abstract. For example, teachers are contracted to teach 1265 hours per year (plus ‘undirected’ ‘reasonable’ hours beyond this) but in terms of day-to-day experience this means little. The heavy focus on ‘clock-time’ also leads to the problem that time itself becomes a proxy for economic cost, a form of currency for teacher and student activity. As a consequence, there is a focus on ‘efficiency’ in all matters, becoming an end in its own right. But is the most efficient always the most effective?
There are consequences to seeing time in such a reductive way. Firstly, the focus on efficiency leads to continued intensification of work. Not only are teachers on average working over 50 hours per week, but they may well be fitting more and more into that time, resulting in a feeling of acceleration, and for some resulting in anxiety. Secondly, it could be argued that there has been the development of a ‘black-market’ in teacher time. The direct time teachers are meant to fulfil each year is 1265 hours. On top of this there is a vague statement concerning ‘reasonable’ extra time used for planning, marking, etc. Even if we allow 50% extra as reasonable, this gives ~1900 hours per year, or 35.5 weeks per year (assuming a working week of 53.5 hours – form the workload survey data), leaving 3.5 weeks per year effectively unpaid (if ‘reasonable’ undirected time were 25% it would give only 29.5 weeks, and hence nearly 10 weeks effectively unpaid). This means that however we measure ‘reasonable’ many teachers are effectively spending part of their year working for free. However, many teachers are willing to contribute far in excess of what might be deemed ‘reasonable’ due to the strong ethic of care which characterises many within the profession, setting up a tension as professionals.
By focusing on clock-time and efficiency, intensification etc are potentially leading to an unsustainable timescape which is probably responsible in part for the recruitment and retention crisis in schools. To begin to address this crisis, one simple way would be to cut the number of hours teachers work each week. However, with all the various demands within the education system, this may be difficult to instigate in any meaningful way – although as suggested below, a dialogue across the school community might help. Instead, perhaps by thinking about time and the way we experience it, we might find alternative ways to make work more sustainable.
There is a long tradition of seeing time as something other than clock time. Perhaps the most useful in this context is rhythmic time. Different activities have different rhythms, for example the rhythm of teaching a weekly timetable, the rhythm of report writing, the rhythm of meetings etc. Under clock time these just add up to give an overall amount of time which is an abstract and does not help in considering the experience of work. But we encounter these activities in how they relate together within our timescapes. If several activities have a rhythm which leads them to occur at the same time, we end up with many things to attend to in a short space of time. This is a form of ‘high temporal density’ (Wajcman, 2015), where we can begin to feel stressed as there are too many things to do. But if rhythms don’t all occur together, we are exposed to a lower temporal density and there will be less chance of feeling overwhelmed. Therefore, if we spend time trying to ensure that the activities teachers are responsible for don’t lead to higher temporal densities, there will be a greater feeling of being able to cope. Indeed, it might be useful to deliberately build in periods of low temporal density at points in the year, something that work intensification in schools has all too often eradicated. These periods will give opportunity for more strategic work, curriculum development, etc. as there is the creation of what Boulous-Walker (2107) calls ‘excess time’.
Another aspect of the way we experience time is determined by the amount of freedom or constraint we feel. A study by Steen-Olsen and Eikseth (2010) focusing on a curriculum development project within a primary school in Norway. Part of their analysis suggests that where teachers have a feeling of autonomy, they tend to feel less time pressured than if they are operating under constraint, for example,
We observed that teachers think of time as ‘ours’ or ‘mine’, but we also noticed that teachers gladly used their entire lunch break as planning time, but only if they had decided to do so themselves, and it was not dictated by others. (288)
What this paper seems to suggest is that where teachers are given a degree of professional autonomy they tend to work for longer hours because they are engaged with the work they are doing and gain greater feelings of professional worth from it. Where they are mainly operating to the desires of others, and hence feel constrained, they will tend to feel more time pressured. Therefore, in contexts where teachers are given greater autonomy (within reason, and within organisational structures) they may feel less time pressured and may work more effectively, producing more in the time they have; in some cases, they may even decide to work longer hours.
So, it might be the case that even if the overall number of hours worked cannot be reduced easily, there are other ways of thinking about time and how we experience it which might offer ways of reducing stress and the feeling of working long hours. By thinking about rhythmic time, and by giving greater ‘structured autonomy’ to staff, the way individuals understand, and experience time might change and become more positive.
Finally, to begin to develop timescapes which work for a whole school community, based on something other than clock time, it is important to involve everyone.