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Who is controlling your time?

Both as a school leader and as a teacher, time is precious. Teaching and leadership can become all consuming passions that devour time relentlessly, professional and personal, if you let it. It doesn't have to be that way, neither should we expect or accept this as 'just part of the job.' Being continually busy, feeling that there are not enough hours in the day to do all that needs doing, is neither desirable or sustainable. I am tired of reading and hearing of teachers and school leaders lamenting undeliverable workload expectations as well as the costs to them, their schools and their families.

I am sure it has not escaped anyone's notice, but we have a staffing crisis in education and our schools. This is manifesting itself in a number of ways. Firstly we cannot attract enough high quality candidates into our profession or universities. Secondly, when we do attract people, we then struggle to retain them. The fall-out rates for recently qualified teachers in their first five years is high, and not getting any better. It was reported in 2016 that 30% of teachers who had qualified in 2010, in England, had quit by 2015. Retention rates for Teach First entrants are even worse. Thirdly, we are finding it more and more difficult to attract the ones that do remain into applying for leadership positions. All of this leads to more schools and classes having no teachers to fill vacancies, especially in key STEM subjects, and a dearth of quality candidates for leadership positions. This puts enormous pressures on those that do remain, and can also lead to some being thrust into teaching and leadership roles without the proper preparation, education and training, resulting in more pressure for them, schools and the system. This is  like Heller's 'Catch 22' for education.

There is no doubt that the reasons for these issues are multi-faceted, and include teacher working conditions, pay and unreasonable expectations by those within and outside the system. However, I think it is workload issues, perceived and real, that are perhaps the key factors that need to be addressed, and are perhaps the easiest to fix.

With every new curricula change, new policy, new governments or ministers, comes a lot of change and bureaucracy adding to the workload burden of schools, teachers and their leaders. It has always been thus, certainly since I first entered education in the 1970s. Another constant during that time has been requests from teachers, unions and some school leaders to slow down the pace of change, think about the workload implications, and to give teachers and schools time to embed a new change, before the next one comes cascading down. In my experience, this has never been achieved. Another factor that has also ratchetted up workload is that of 'accountability', which seems to have taken over as the key driver in many of our schools and systems. As a result, we have a situation where teachers and schools now are experiencing change and workloads on a scale never before experienced by the profession, unless you teach in Finland! Added to that, is the pressure and consequences of the high-stakes accountability measures and approaches. All this can leave teachers and leaders frazzled and feeling under-appreciated and not listened to.

This has to stop, and the people who can stop it are ourselves. Teachers and school leaders have to take back control of what is happening in their schools and classrooms.

Teaching and school leadership is demanding, there is no denying this, but both roles have to be manageable and sustainable, otherwise the system is not sustainable and continues to fail many of our learners. If no-one from outside our schools is prepared to carry out the gate-keeping and prioritising role, that we have long asked for, then we have to do it ourselves. School leaders and teachers are the ones who really know their schools and understand their context deeply, therefore it should be down to them to set the development agenda for those schools themselves, not have this imposed by others from outside. Being close to their teachers also allows them to understand the time implications for them in delivering on the 'day job' of teaching classes of young learners, and the demands on time that alone entails.

I am not saying that each school and individual teachers should be free to do whatever they wish, what I am saying is that, within national and local priorities, schools and their leaders are the ones best placed to identify and prioritise the necessary actions they need to take. These will be identified from their self-evaluation processes, with reference to national priorities. They are the ones however, who need to protect themselves, and their learners, from all that they are being told from outside that they should be focusing on. School leaders and their teams have to identify what their priorities are, and most importantly what is deliverable and sustainable within a reasonable working week for all. The best school leaders recognise that everything they wish to achieve is down to teachers and other staff being able to deliver. To do this properly they need to want to (hearts and minds) and need to be supported to do so, with proper provision and notice of their well-being taken account of.

Schools themselves need to set their improvement agendas, with support and collaboration from others, and these need to be deliverable in the timeframe available, then measured in terms of impact for learners. They will still be busy, but it will be a managed busyness, not a constant sandstorm of busyness, leaving no time to see or assess impact, or make adjustments. Schools and teachers will be getting better incrementally, year on year, change will be deep and sustainable, embedded into practice and thinking of all.

Such a scenario is not flashy or headline grabbing, but it is realistic and deliverable in producing learning cultures, and development, that is relentless and built into the DNA of schools and individuals. I would also argue that it is the only way that can produce sustainable workloads, built into everyday working, that gives individuals and schools time to reflect and manage change for the better, instead of continuing to drive headlong into more poorly thought out changes and busyness.

We really cannot wait any longer for our political and system leaders to recognise that this is what has to happen. We have to do it ourselves. The cost of not taking such an approach is ever increasing demands and expectations, that are just not deliverable in the real world. Politicians, and some system leaders who are only focused on career-progression, will still demand short-term headline grabbing change and busyness, but we, who are in education for the long haul, for the difference it can make to so many lives, have to control what we can control. The first thing we can all control is how we spend our time, and the impact that has for all our learners.


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