I often wonder if I am slightly more militant in my opinions than a lot of people. To me, it always seems the right thing to do and if something annoys me or I feel it is unjustified, I do feel real anger and frustration. Some might think it is the natural fiery red-head in me, but I do feel that it is our responsibility as humans, and as a professional body of people to care about what is happening within our profession, even if it is not happening directly to us. Today’s Education Committee report on the ‘Recruitment and Retention of Teachers‘ at least acknowledges that there is an issue in the profession, whilst not offering much in the way of a solution
I’m happy in my job. I love my job. But, like many, I do feel that the workload is becoming crushingly huge, but to get to the bottom as to why is like a tangled web of confusion…it’s been a general build-up of…well everything really. I’m lucky that I work in a school that is beginning to understand and acknowledge some of this. We have flexibility to trial marking strategies, and assessment, data and mock windows have been looked at in order to attempt not to ‘clog up’ any one section of the year with workload. We now have working groups looking at data, marking and feedback and planning and resources in an attempt to eliminate unnecessary workload. It’s not perfect, but everyone is trying and acknowledging there is a problem. My single biggest issue this year has been GCSE and the marking of mocks, but more of that later.
But I do know that this is not the case everywhere. I know people who are working in what I consider, shocking environments. I have a friend whose contracted hours are 8.30-5 before there is any sort of planning or marking, and their year 11 class results have to be above the national average or they don’t even get a rate of inflation pay rise. Try and go to the union about it…well, put it this way, they are all too scared. I was talking to someone the other week, who had left a job where they worked from 8.30-5 every day, all those hours directed, with their PPA being 4-5. Some of the things that this person was telling me about workload, made me want to explode with anger. How dare people be treated in this way? No prizes for guessing that these were academy chains, although I am equally careful not to suggest that this happens in all academy chains. But it still angered me how utterly horrifying this was and these were people, like me, who were just teachers, trying to do a good job.
The brilliant thing about Twitter, is that it has allowed me to connect with and meet people from across the country, people working in completely different schools and circumstances. There are people on Twitter that I find utterly inspirational, but more and more this year I am getting messages from people who are exhausted, who are spending holidays just trying to catch up with it all, and yes, I do count myself among them this year, and some of these are the people that I find inspirational and brilliant and the teaching profession would be all the poorer for not having them there. But it does give you an insight into the challenges others face and I’m trying not to be so insular in my understanding of what is going on in education. I get, for example, that some people work in schools where behaviour is horrific and can be frightening. I also understand that this is not the case in every school and that there are many schools where it isn’t an issue. I understand what works in one school might not work in another and that each has a unique setting and context and I try to keep an open mind.
So what is happening? I can only tell it from my viewpoint and the people I have spoken to. The first thing is the time spent actually teaching. I did a poll a few months ago asking how much PPA an average teacher gets. The results were pretty much as I thought, I have 3 which is about right for the amount of contracted hours and that’s what came out top, although, added together, 67% of teachers had 2-3 hours of PPA, with Primary seeming to be at the lower end of PPA hours.
Now for each hour that you teach, there is planning and marking time, therefore it stands to reason that the more hours you teach, you automatically have extra hours of planning and marking and more time stood in front of children. It’s just a fact. And good senior leaders understand and respect that, not faff around with excuses. They get it. Now I do know that there are schools and some commented on the poll to say that they were lucky to have more than the statutory 10% PPA and that’s great, that’s as it should be, but I wonder for some, if that is something that will last over the next 5 years. Schools are about to suffer a crisis in funding. My Head is open and honest about the fact that money is going to be needed to be saved and has already put savings into place. We get it, it’s got to be done. Just this morning, I was chatting on here about PPA time when someone messaged me to tell me that they had been told that the extra hour PPA on top of the statutory amount they had received for years was going from September. It was either that, or have to lose staff and when schools are up against it, it is kind of understandable. How many teachers are going to see time lost, or class sizes getting bigger? The irony is that this is one of the things that is breaking people. We need time.
So more hours worked means more marking, or at least more looking at students’ work. I am the sole teacher for everything but one of the classes I teach, so a year 7, a year 8, a year 9, 2 year 10s and 2 year 11s. Pretty average, apart from the 4…yes 4…gcse classes, although GCSE is my favourite, so I’m not really moaning. That sense of camaraderie you get with GCSE classes is something I thrive on, and I think it’s where I ‘fit’ the best. Now, I think I am fairly savvy and I work in an environment where I can trial things, and give feedback in the way that I feel best. My department has been allowed to switch from half-termly assessment points to nine weekly units in KS3. We assess how we see fit as long as they are assessed on both reading and writing AOs in each unit and all AOs across the year. We have a huge range of ability across KS3 (my daughter, who goes to my school, said the other day after watching an intervention session, ‘oh my god there are children in year 7 who cant read the word ‘the.’Yep’) and a high migrant turnover, so it is down to us as professionals to think about how best to assess, and that’s great. I’ve spent the last 18 months trialling lots of ways to give feedback and quickly, from code feedback to whole class feedback, to in class feedback etc. and it is generally working. I, more often than not, feel more on top of KS3, even though I have upped my game in terms of the amount of extended writing I expect from students.
KS4 however, is a totally different ball game. In English, we are in the first year of walking blindly into the unknown. It reminds me a bit of when I was little and played pin the tail on the donkey at friends’ parties, you felt that slightly sick feeling as you were being spun round and then weren’t really sure where you were. A new specification has meant an increased workload. We are planning from scratch, we are going back and looking at where things haven’t worked and re-jigging, we’re working out how to increase confidence in those skills further down the school, we are looking at how to help students retain lots of information, we have a huge amount of content to get through and we have 2 year groups who have to be continually practising for the demands of 8 hours worth of exam time in English…plus the extra 20 odd hours elsewhere. So it is all bit like a pin the tail on the donkey spin, without my friend’s mum to stop me if I walk into the wall.
And here comes the biggest single addition to my personal workload this year. Mock papers. Naively, I wandered into it thinking it would all be fine, it’s like any other mock…except it takes a million years to mark. We’ve now completed 2 lots of Language mocks, one for year 11 and one for year 10. We don’t mark our own (school policy) just the number of students we teach, so we had to come up with a way that was consistent and quick….code feedback. We have trialled it, played with it, fine tuned and now feel like we have a set of codes that work for us to cover both papers. It is also a really interesting thing to do – get your department together for an hour and work it out, it really helps to focus what is required for each question. So, brilliant, time-saving codes. Every question has a code on the bottom, this is what you need to do to improve for next time and a mark. What you ‘did good’ has a tick. Except it still takes forever to read the papers. This is English – the kids write…and brilliantly, even year 10 wrote an answer…to all the questions. With the greatest will in the world, one paper, therefore takes about 30 minutes. Each student completes 2 papers. That’s about an hour per student. Some of my colleagues said it took them about 40 minutes per paper. But for me, I have about 56 students per year group. So since November, I have had to find 108 hours of extra time to mark mock papers. I’ve experimented lots, with the best way for me being a question at a time rather than a student’s whole paper, but it still takes time. Will it get quicker the more familiar I am with the mark scheme? Possibly.And where has that time inevitably come from? What am I now spending my half term trying to claw a bit a bit of a handle back on? KS3.
When I go back after half term, year 11 will sit their Literature mocks. We will code again and see how long that takes. Each student will write 4 long essay answers and 1 short answer. I’m thinking quite a while. Then year 10 will do another mock, although by that time year 11 will have left, so slightly less pressure, but by the end of the year I will have marked over 400 mock papers. So there’s my pressure. So what’s the answer? The students need to be having a go in timed conditions, and be used to the routine of the exam hall. It’s one of the things they like doing want a much as possible. I have a timer on a ppt that times them writing paragraphs – they love it, because they need to know their limits in the time available. Now, do we not mark it? I’d dare any school to try that at GCSE level and not get parental complaints. I’m a parent and I would complain. They need some form of feedback. Peer assess? Personally, I can’t stand a mark scheme written in student speak that still makes no sense and as my daughter used to say, ‘my work is always assessed by THAT kid and I learn nothing.’ Verbal feedback? To be done properly it still requires time. I don’t know what the answer is. We are toying with the idea of comparative judgement, but with a large cohort, need to consider logistics carefully and would have to start out small.
I am lucky that I work in a department that sees itself as a team and when things have got tough, the A level teachers have taken on some of the GCSE marking. We see results as team results not individual teachers…and that attitude works for us. In last month’s Ofsted inspection, progress in English was described as being ‘exceptionally strong’ and we know that we can do it, so we need to look at how we can tackle things like the sheer amount of time mock marking takes, without losing the momentum that we have made over the last few years. Because that is what will burn us out if we are not careful.
But I know that there are those that are struggling even more. I see others that are about to start on mock marking that consists of all 4 papers for English, teachers that have been told students need to sit a mock every 2 weeks, teachers that have KS3 assessments set in stone and have to be marked with summative comments, those who have to put data in every 30 seconds and who are teaching huge classes. My militant self gets angry for other people and I worry what will happen if something doesn’t give. We should also be careful not to think that what is happening to others, won’t happen to us. One of the people I talked about at the beginning was happily working one way, then new management came in, infrastructure changed and suddenly work was a very different place. How many schools next year will go into panic mode after GCSE results and feeling the need to prove that they are doing something, up the pressure and workload of teachers? It will take really strong leaders to think about how they can change results without adding to workload.
So time for me to get back to my planning and marking. I’m not a martyr, this constant referring to people trying to do their job as ‘martyrs’ is no good for anyone. I’d love nothing more than to spend my half term doing absolutely diddly squat and loving it and if you can, good for you, you have reached zen level and I’m happy for you, I really am. I’m just trying to get back in a place where I feel like I can go into the next, very busy half term as a fairly sane person, for no one else but me, and hey, during this week I get to do in front of the telly, eating crisps and watching endless episodes of Parks and Recreation so it ain’t all bad. But I will shout about things, and not for me, but for those that are having a really tough time of it, for those that can’t say anything for fear of their jobs, because they do exist and they do do matter because we’re a profession, not a load of people working against each other.
Back to that game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ – I’m the one that sticks it on an ear.