Head to Head

Workload, Stretch, Action

A big chunk of this edition of Head to Head is given over to the report from our annual workload survey.  While average working hours are down, they are still extremely high.  While the issues raised as workload concerns haven’t changed a great deal, they have increased in intensity.  While HTs are still just as inclined to recommend headship, the DHT and PT response to the statement ‘I want to become a HT’ is increasingly negative.   This is not a pretty picture.

March has become a very tough month for me as it involves personally analysing the response to the workload survey.  It isn’t just tough in the ironic sense that it puts my working hours through the roof but it is tough as the information shared by members it is the strongest possible reminder of the stretch that you are under day and daily.  

As an association we commit to speak out for you on issues that matter and there could scarcely be a better description of that than the product of the survey completed by more than 1100 of you.  However, that ‘speaking out’ won’t always be visible to you (as we try to work with colleagues in other organisations to seek change) and it will often be slow.  

Alongside the activity at a national level I ask you to think about how you can act on the messages from the workload survey too:
-    If you are working around or above the average reported weekly hours, take a moment to recognise that you are working longer than most of your peers.  Is your situation different or have you created norms for yourself that lead to you routinely working very long hours? (Take a look at the health impacts on page X)
-    Think about the challenges in your setting, are any of them issues that you would fit under the following recommendation from the HT working group report:   

The Headteacher Recruitment Working Group report made a range of recommendations which were targeted at tackling some of the issues thrown up in our previous surveys.  A key recommendation in the report was:
“10. Local authorities should work with their headteachers to test and evaluate improvements to local working practices in order to tackle bureaucracy, and share best practice…”
We urge members to think about key areas of unnecessary bureaucracy and seek to work with their directorates or RIC to consider how to reduce administrative burdens on school leadership teams.

We are bombarded with messages about teaching being a calling and about school leadership being about living your values through your school.  All of that is true(ish) for most members but it also creates a climate in which members’ beliefs about professionalism lead to guilt about not achieving all that they might with their staff, their school or for their pupils.  In turn, this can lead to excessive workload and pressure – through implied, or imagined, rather than explicit expectations.  

I was struck by two short pieces in the TESS on 3 May which hit on just this point.  The first was “We don’t need fireworks – teachers should burn steadily like a candle”.  In it, Susan Ward, DHT from Kingsland Primary in the Scottish Borders talks about self-care becoming another pressure point, saying:
“The truth is, no amount of meditating or Sunday walks will sort out workload.  What is needed is a cultural shift in thinking – let’s encourage teachers to find another way.
Choose not to burn so brightly.  Choose not to expire in a blaze of colour, leaving nothing but ash behind.  Be a candle.  Burn steadily.  Use your light to ignite others so that together you push back the dark.  Surround yourself with those who will gently cup their hands around your flame and protect you when sharp winds blow.
True, your performance will not be as showy.  Sometimes it may seem a little pedestrian next to bolder, more eye-catching performances, but you must remember that you will light the way long after these passing wonders are gone and forgotten.”
The second was “Just remember that it is a marathon, not a sprint” in which a teacher reflected on the highly publicised crawling-finish by Hayley Carruthers at this year’s London marathon.  He compared it to being a new teacher, seeking to live up to the long hours culture that prevailed in education.  This had affected his sleep and health, leading to burnout.  He urged all teachers to value rest and recovery.  

These messages are just as applicable to those in leadership roles.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done.  I appreciate that, I really do.  However, we will work hard to try to challenge systemic issues leading to excessive workload, but this challenge must be tackled from the bottom up too.  This isn’t me saying your excessive workload is your fault.  Rather, I am saying that there may be elements of it that are in your gift and suggesting that you seek these elements out and are ruthless about how you address them – for the sake of your own health, to provide a demonstration to those coming behind you and to redress the assumption that school leaders will work endlessly because ‘your work is your life’.  It is not, it is one part of your life – the other parts are there to enjoy, not to squeeze around work or to use just as a salve to get you back into the fray.

I dream of an April when I do not read workload survey comments from many members who feel they are compromising their own family, health and sanity to get the job done.  Let’s hope that it can be 2020!

Greg Dempster
AHDS General Secretary