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Workload and women: reflecting on the TES pre-election debate

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Heading to the TES pre-election debate, I was expecting workload to feature in the speakers' pitches. Nicky Morgan, Tristram Hunt and David Laws would be speaking to an audience of teachers, so would probably assume this would go down well.

Sure enough, workload came up. David Laws said that for him, two issues stood out from the recent workload challenge as significant drivers of workload: changes from government (and the pace of these changes), and an accountability regime which can lead to teachers being asked to do things for Ofsted rather than for pupils. Similarly, Tristram Hunt made a point about ending “initiative-itis” and trusting teachers to get on with the job. He also spoke of getting rid of bureaucracy around the pupil premium and the administration of tests.

The question which really caught my attention, though, was about increasing the number of women in senior leadership positions in schools. As NAHT Edge’s Louis Coiffait has previously pointed out on Key insights, women are underrepresented at the senior leadership level. And according to Education Datalab they're paid less, too.

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my partner's mum (a teacher) about her workload and how it could be made more manageable. Her response was that there’s no simple fix to the problem, as “you can’t physically do the work in the time available”.

For example, marking: depending on your school’s policy, you may have to add targets to show pupils how to improve next time, and then there needs to be evidence that pupils have read the feedback and know how to improve. So for 30 books, if you spend seven minutes on each, that’s 210 minutes for one class, or three and a half hours. If you have eight classes this adds up to 28 hours a week, and that’s assuming no books take longer than seven minutes. Teaching is often seen as a family-friendly profession, what with the popular image of teachers leaving at 3 pm and having all those long holidays. But if you’re doing five and a half hours of marking a day, is it really all that good for family life?

My partner’s mum said she’s also noticed a culture shift in recent years, whereby if you come back part-time from maternity leave you can often be perceived as not being committed to the job. Part-time teachers also might not have access to the same level of training and mentoring for developing leadership skills, which would make it harder to move up the ladder.

She also talked about the development of a ‘first in, last out’ culture: if, for example, you have to leave a meeting to pick your children up from school, or aren't around to take on that extra task because you’re working part-time, it can cause resentment among colleagues. Part of this, she thinks, is because “it’s such a pressurised profession”.

Back at the debate, Nicky Morgan made the point that teaching could learn a lot from other professions through, for example, developing part-time working and "supportive ways of keeping people in the profession". For me, this was the most practical answer offered on the subject - although I'd hope she had something to say about it, being minister for women and equalities.

It seems to me that teachers' workload and the proportionate lack of women in senior leadership positions are fairly closely linked. In a world where women are generally still expected to be the primary caregivers for children, five and a half hours of marking a day surely isn’t sustainable for women who are both teachers and parents. And maybe if some of the pressure is taken off all teachers, those who choose to work part-time won’t run the risk of being seen as less committed to the job.

The politicians at the debate all had a lot to say about "driving up standards" (next time I go to an event with politicians, I might make up a buzzword bingo to take along). While I don't doubt that this is important, what I'd really like to see post-election is a government working to "drive up" the number of women in senior leadership positions.

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