Workload: are the cracks emerging?

I just came across this article by the excellent Colin Harris which was published back in November. He makes some very important points about the "corrosive effects" of workload which "is not improving schools, but it is wrecking lives".

A more recent article from the Michaela free school puts it in even more emotive terms, calling workload an "addiction" which is "driven by the misguided belief that hard work equates to love for one's pupils". This school has, by all accounts, been successful in ruthlessly cutting back on workload by putting teachers' wellbeing first, and the results seem to be uniformly positive for the students they teach.

But this is just one school with one charismatic and powerful leadership team, plus a good deal of additional free-school funding and freedom. Back in the real world, Colin Harris' article notes that almost all wider attempts to address workload have failed, and locates some of the responsibility for this in the emotional needs of teachers who, he says "think that if they are not marking for three hours a night, they are not doing a good job", even though this is often not a message coming from leadership.

Normally when we think about excessive workload we locate the problem in an out-of-touch management team making unrealistic demands on teachers. And there is doubtless some truth in this. Similarly, we would be foolish to ignore the impact that OfSTED and league tables and the rest have on the siege mentality in some schools.

But both articles suggest that the situation is more nuanced than this. Both articles foreground the way in which teachers and leadership co-create excessive workload out of the emotional impulses of addiction, guilt, and fear. Indeed, the emotional burden of excessive workload is experienced, it would seem, at every level - for example, in the most recent State of Education survey conducted by The Key, 73% of school leaders said they felt guilty if they left work on time. So it's not as simple as 'them vs us'.

How, then, can we address this part of the problem? I can't help but wonder how much of this "addiction" to accountability - both in teachers and in management - comes from un-examined fears and concerns about self-worth and about the life chances of those we teach. For example, I did most of my overworking because at points I was terrified of ever being anything less than outstanding - what would people think of me then? How could I hold my head up high? How could I justify telling other teachers what to do? Would I be found out as no good for nothing? Would it all come crashing down as my fundamental unworthiness was uncovered? And was I really doing the best for my class? Wouldn't someone else do a better job? I'd better prepare an extra-exciting unit of work so that I can be sure I'm not letting them down...

Unpacking some of these emotional processes which bubble away under the surface could be of great benefit to teachers and to those they teach. But will we get the chance? Harris finishes by hightlighting this coming year as pivotal for workload, as the ongoing recruitment crisis will leave teachers ever-more stretched, undervalued and voiceless. In his words, "perhaps it will be the year when the small cracks in the system widen to create the earthquake we can all see coming. What good would that do to our pupils?" In Harris' view, the whole thing is going to reach breaking point and this will have a disastrous effect on everybody.

I'm not sure whether I'm quite so pessimistic as he is. There is another way to approach these widening cracks: once they grow to an unignorable size, they will no longer be able to be swept under the carpet. When they become a crisis, a solution will have to be found. I believe it is up to us - the teachers, managers, and support staff who are working at the chalk face - to seize the political agenda and advocate for the best way to fill in the cracks, rather than letting the earthquake ruin everything. 

Maybe these kinds of cracks are just what we need to help us find our voice?