Overwork is what stresses teachers out the most – and the DfE needs to take urgent, concrete steps, writes Kevin Courtney

Teachers tell us time and again that workload is the main issue that drives them to despair – or in many cases out of the profession all together. The government has acknowledged the extent of the problem but as yet it has unfortunately achieved little of any real consequence in trying to address it.

Research continues to reaffirm the scale of the problem. The most recent Department for Education survey on teachers’ working time only told us what we already knew: teachers are working excessively long hours – well over 50 hours per week on average. School leaders and new entrants to teaching work significantly longer hours again.

Teachers themselves sometimes have scope to help themselves – the ATL’s “Make One Change” initiative gave us proof of that. Individual school leaders, where they feel confident, can adjust practices to benefit their staff. Bodies such as Ofsted can make more significant interventions, as Sean Harford has shown over the past year.

The government, though, is the main culprit in prompting the workload crisis. The buck stops at the door of the DfE and it is there that we need a change of approach to schools and teachers.

First and foremost we need to radically overhaul the assessment and accountability system in schools. The climate created by the current regime leads inevitably to unrelenting demands on school leaders which lead in turn to unreasonable demands on teachers, whether in terms of planning, marking, reporting, attending meetings, or other newer demands such as emails.

Almost two years ago the DfE was persuaded reluctantly to establish its independent review groups on unnecessary workload associated with planning, marking and data management.

The reports were thorough and the authors often uncompromising, pointing out how planning too often becomes “a box-ticking exercise creating unnecessary workload”, and data collection “an end in itself, divorced from the core purpose of improving outcomes for pupils”.

The buck stops at the door of the DfE and it is there that we need a change of approach to schools and teachers

Their recommendations set out a range of useful principles to help school leaders and teachers ensure that working practices are productive, expectations reasonable and workload for teachers manageable. All of this was valuable, although we would have welcomed some more explicit identification of bad practices that should not be undertaken.

The more challenging task is to ensure that this approach becomes embedded in schools. The DfE has produced advice, supported by the NEU and other teaching unions, but its impact so far has unfortunately been limited. We have encouraged our members to seek dialogue with their managers and collaboratively implement change, but also to challenge unnecessary practices where schools fail to adopt and adhere to the recommendations.

We may yet succeed in pushing schools into a new way of thinking. But we also need a real reversal of the government attitudes which created the problem in the first place.

Ministers suggest that they don’t intend to set out to create unnecessary workload and want to play a role in reducing burdens. They say their policy is to support autonomy, with schools leading the education system. So why then do they not act more decisively to reform the accountability system, lessen its grip on the confidence of school leaders, and aim to encourage good practice rather than to stimulate insecurity?

The principle, really, is a very clear one. Working practices that have no useful impact on pupil outcomes but are a burden on school staff should stop. The insecurity behind work that’s no more than a paper trail for accountability purposes must end. As another of the independent workload reports commented, “school leaders must have the confidence to reject decisions that increase burdens for their staff for little dividend”.

School leaders and teachers should once more gain some professional control over the curriculum they teach and the way they teach it.

Trust should return to the profession and teachers should be allowed to spend their time on making a difference to their students’ lives.

Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union